Leaders from the Columbus, Ohio school district and the Child Development Council of Franklin County's Head Start are working together in order to better utilize classrooms with low enrollment in order to expand their Pre-Kindergarten program. They plan to do this even without the money a levy would have raised, and the district has teamed up with Childhood League to reach the Pre-K demographic.
"We're all in it together to find a way," said Vicki Kelly, director of early-childhood education at the Childhood League, a nonprofit that operates a preschool for children with special needs.
Anita Davis, spokeswoman for the Child Development Council, said that the Head Start classrooms are likely to be opened in school buildings that have space but also don't have many nearby pre-kindergarten options. She also said that the agency has been in talks for some time about space at South High School, and several other buildings are being discussed. Bernice Smith, who oversees the district's early-learning programs, said there are long waiting lists to get into the district's existing pre-kindergarten classrooms. There are 44 pre-K classrooms district wide.
"We have approximately 800 children enrolled and have approximately 800 children on the wait list, and we get calls every day – every day – from people who want to enroll their children," Bernice said.
Dan Good, the Interim Superintendent, said that he wants to keep early-learning initiatives going, but at the same time the district must cut $50 million from next year's budget. The schools operating the classrooms and providing services to the younger kids will be determined by the budgeting process according to Dan.
This school year, the district opened 10 new pre-kindergarten classrooms. For the first time, it selected the sites based on an analysis of kindergarten literacy scores in its elementary schools; the lower the scores, the more urgent the need for pre-K. Schools such as Eakin Elementary, which serves many children who are learning English as a second language, and those in high-poverty areas such as the Linden and Hilltop neighborhoods were given priority.
Learn4Life Columbus, a nonprofit that is focused on improving early-learning chances for kids, did the literacy analysis for the district. Before, sites were chosen based on how many students receive free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. According to Jennifer Smith Richards of The Columbus Dispatch, the levy would have devoted$8.5 million per year for five years to expanding pre-kindergarten. That amount would have more than doubled the number of spots available, though it wouldn't have been enough money to provide free pre-K to every 4-year-old in the district. However, according to Bernice, the demand is still there.
"I would like to see a pre-K program in every elementary school, and some may need two because of its location and the area it serves," Bernice said. "Times have changed. Expectations have changed. Requirements for children have changed. We have to prepare children for this change."