Research shows Alabama's Pre-K program makes a difference
Alabama's pre-kindergarten program has been named the best in the nation. It all started 15 years ago.
There were eight pilot sites when the state started its program 15 years ago.
We found one that tracked its students from that first class.
Charlene Hayes and Lisa Clark taught the first state funded Pre-K class in Fort Payne -- one of the pilot sites 15 years ago.
They are still teaching the same program in the same classroom.
"I tell the parents, I know they're your's, but they're mine, too," Hayes said.
Over the years nearly 300 little faces have passed through their classroom, and they keep up with them all.
Every student except one in that first class is now in college.
"It's just awesome when I hear these results, when I see the parents," Clark said.
Two of those students are now enrolled at Auburn University -- Amanda Toler and Jacob Raughton.
Amanda is studying agriculture economics, and Jacob is studying mechanical engineering.
They believe pre-k laid the foundation for their current success.
"After it I stayed in honors classes all the way through high school," Raughton said.
"All throughout school, high school, I felt that I had been well prepared," Amanda Toler said.
Amanda and her twin sister, who was also in the program, are on track to be the first in their family to graduate from college. Their mother gives credit to the Pre-K program.
"You could see that they were really taking it all in, just soaking it up, being a structured way of learning for them," Patty Toler said.
In First Class, students learn through play. They get to still be 4-year-olds even though they are at school, and it's on their level.
Research shows students who participated in Alabama's Pre-K program outperform their peers.
The Alabama School Readiness Alliance also reports that Pre-K alumni were less likely to commit a crime or rely on costly social welfare services.
"What we found is that Pre-K, from what we could tell, had the effect of closing those gaps," said Research Coordinator Joe Adams.
Adams, who is with the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, is part of a team of researchers looking at Alabama's Pre-K program.
He's referring to gaps between students from low-income households and those from more affluent families.
Adams says the research shows students from low-income families who participated in the state's Pre-K program closed the gap by 25 percent on average.
"This isn't the baby sitting. This is high quality pre-k where we are talking about having high standards," Adams said.
There is room for improvement. Only 19 percent of 4-years-olds currently have access to the state program because of limited funding.
Statewide, a total of 11,000 4-year-olds are learning in Alabama's First Class Pre-K program this year. That's 3,600 more students than last year.
By December, the state will reach 20 percent of 4-year-olds thanks to expanding programs in Mobile. The goal is to serve around 70 percent of 4-year-olds by 2023.
Don't be surprised if Hayes and Clark are still teaching then.
"Everybody tells me that I make a difference and I hope that continues," Clark said.
There is high demand for these Pre-K classes. In Montgomery County alone 164 children who applied for the program didn't get in due to limited space.
Montogmery Public Schools Spokesperson Tom Salter says there are 470 students enrolled across all programs in the county. MPS has five locations and 12 classrooms. Overall there are 14 locations with 29 classrooms, including MPS.
It's estimated it would take $144 million to fully fund the program. The Alabama School Readiness Alliance has come up with a 10-year plan to reach that goal.
It includes the legislature gradually increasing funding, which they did by $10 million this year.
The state-funded Pre-K program is not free for all students. In some cases it's based on income. But, the program cannot deny students, if they can't pay.
You can read more about the program's structure here
You can read more about the research into Alabama's Pre-K program here
Copyright 2015 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.