Pre-kindergarten was scheduled to see changes in Newton County following a March decision by Governor Nathan Deal to shorten the school year for those students, but Superintendent Gary Mathews has advised against cutting in Pre-K, and most board members seem to agree that although the county is facing tough financial times, it is too important for those students to cut the program at all.
Newton County currently serves roughly 560 pre-kindergarten students. Under Deal's plan, there will still be lottery-funded Pre-K, but the year for those students would be shortened from 180 days to 160 days and class size would be increased from 20 students to 22. Pre-K teachers will receive 90 percent of their current salaries and providers will receive 94 percent of operating funds they currently receive. Under this plan, it would save the state roughly $54 million annually.
Elementary schools in the county now have two Pre-K classes each. Next year that will change slightly. Since the need is higher, Flint Hill and Live Oak will both have
three Pre-K classes, which Heard-Mixon - a school that typically has trouble filling the slots in two Pre-K classes - will have just one class. All other elementary schools will continue with two classes.
"Given that the NCSS has a large academically ‘at-risk' student population (approximately 62 percent system-wide) often lacking the needed background knowledge for academic success, the continuation of a full academic year for our Pre-K students it vital to the future of our school system and the community at large," reads a memorandum from Mathews to the board.
"Realistically, Pre-K education is the ‘entry' point in our education system providing the most basic foundation of learning... reaching children early puts them on a more likely pathway to academic success."
District 2 board representative and vice-chairman Eddie Johnson questioned if it would be appropriate to have Pre-K be fee-based in the county and according to Dr. Linda Hayden, Associate Superintendent for Curriculum, some school systems are exploring that possibility, but none have gone that route as of yet. However, in the decade that lottery-funded Pre-K has existed there has never been a parent-funded subsidy for the program.
"We got to do something that we have not been doing to make up the projected deficit we have, and this is a source of income that I think we should consider doing," said Johnson.
Mathews expressed his concern that if the county charged for Pre-K, many children that the program serves come from families that would be unable to afford to send their children, thus causing them to miss out on much-needed early education prior to starting kindergarten. And statistics show that most brain development takes places before that age of 5, according to Mathews' memorandum.
"We're looking at the end of what we want to provide and Pre-K is a fundamental start to a child's education," argued District 4 representative and board chairman Almond Turner. "I think we need to allow every child the opportunity and I wouldn't agree to charge parents for Pre-K."