Starting young

September 21, 2019

Alabama’s pre-K ranked among the nation’s best

By Lisa Savage

Rachel Brothers, an auxiliary pre-K teacher at DAR works on alphabet skills with a student.
Rachel Brothers, an auxiliary pre-K teacher at DAR works on alphabet skills with a student.

Two girls huddled together, giggling as they watched an educational cartoon on an iPad. Another student asked for her teacher’s help in putting on a pair of kid-sized work gloves. Meanwhile, in another classroom, a teacher used a smartboard to practice alphabet skills with a group of students.

It’s a typical day in the prekindergarten classrooms at Kate Duncan Smith DAR Elementary School. “We don’t do typical schoolwork,” says Beth Martin, one of the pre-K teachers at the school. “We focus on motor skills and social development.”

There are no desks, and students might be sitting on a rug on the floor or at a table as they work on a project. “We want to spark their imagination,” Martin says. “I feel like this is my one shot to make them excited about learning. They’re learning, and they don’t even know they’re learning.”

The teaching methods in Alabama’s pre-K classes are working. The state’s pre-K program, which has topped the national rankings for 13 consecutive years, appears in a documentary produced last year by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Massachusetts. The film, “Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America,” was funded by the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation. It featured successful pre-K programs and explained the importance of early childhood education.

Elliot G. Steinberg, a director of the foundation, and the team from Harvard visited pre-K programs at schools in Alabama in 2017. Jeana Ross, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, accompanied them. Steinberg pointed out during his visit that the state has a program the rest of the country can learn from. “The whole idea is a level playing field for all children,” Steinberg says. “That needs to be the goal of education in America.”

Alabama’s first pre-K program started in 2000 with one classroom, and now there are more than 1,000 classrooms. “It’s expanding based on the results of its success,” Steinberg says. “Everyone can learn from Alabama’s model,” and the documentary is one way to spread the message.

While prekindergarten students sometimes learn to identify letters and numbers, the Alabama pre-K program focuses on social and emotional skills like learning how to line up for lunch, how to keep one’s hands to oneself and how to get along with other children. “It’s not teaching in a conventional way,” Steinberg says. He explains that it’s about executive functioning, which is teaching mental control and self-control.

A child’s brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 5, so Steinberg says reaching the 4-year-olds is important. “If they haven’t learned these things by then, they fall behind,” he says.

The state’s Early Childhood Education department administers the pre-K program and operates separately from the Alabama Department of Education, which is responsible for kindergarten through grade 12. Pre-K teachers must have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

New Hope Elementary School principal Jamie Burton credits strong leadership at the state level for the success of the state’s pre-K program.

Starting school for the first time can cause anxiety for a child. “Pre-K helps not only academically, but it helps boost a child’s confidence as they head to kindergarten,” Burton says. “They’re already familiar with the school, and that makes it so much easier.”

Statistics show students attending a pre-K class do better in kindergarten and the first few years of grade school. They learn how to get along with others, play fairly and solve problems. “Kids are learning important social skills, and that is critical for their success in kindergarten,” Burton says.

The pre-K classes help to better prepare children for kindergarten. Research shows that the earlier a child’s brain interacts with literacy, the more the child can learn. “This prepares the children so that they are ahead of the curve for kindergarten,” says Adam Hampton, principal at Owens Cross Roads School. “That’s why pre-K plays such an important role for our students.”

Starting Young magazine article