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A spirit that is not afraid

State pre-K program tied for top in nation

Children throughout Alabama are getting a head start learning their ABC's and 123's.

For the third consecutive year, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Alabama and North Carolina as having the top pre-kindergarten programs nationally.

In its annual survey, NIEER uses 10 benchmarks to rank the nation's state-funded preschool programs. The benchmarks address standards such as teaching degrees, specialization and student-teacher ratios.

Marquita Davis, director of the Office of School Readiness in Alabama, said Alabama and North Carolina were the only two states to meet all 10 standards.

"They set standards that ensure success early on, and we make sure we adhere to them," Davis said. "We try to do anything and everything that is developmentally appropriate for a 4-year-old child."

Alabama began offering state-funded preschool education to all 4-year-old Alabama residents in 2000. The state's goal was to offer at least one program per county through a variety of classroom settings such as public schools, private centers, faith-based organizations and the nationally funded Head Start programs.

The Alabama Head Start program provides children in low-income households with educational programs and literacy opportunities in a multi-cultural environment.

The state also increased funding in the 2007-2008 school year to provide more programs to children across Alabama.

Davis said extra funding allows preschool teachers to become more specialized and continues to further the success of the program.

"Your best teachers should be in the youngest years," Davis said. "They are the foundation."

According to the study, NIEER also found an increase in enrollment by more than 108,000 children. More than 1.1 million children attended state-funded preschool education nationally in 2008.

However, Alabama state law does not require children to be enrolled in school until age 7. Davis said the preschool programs are voluntary and therefore many parents do not enroll their children until kindergarten.

Davis also said the state pre-K programs help prepare children for their future education, which typically ranks low on the national level.

According to a US News survey, Alabama ties for 35th among high school education programs.

"We prepare the children to enter the school system in kindergarten and then it is up to the schools to help them grow throughout their education," Davis said. "It has to be a collective effort."

NIEER also found that high-quality preschool education not only improves the educational success of all children, but decreases school dropout rates, crime and delinquency.

Nancy McLeod, elementary principal at Lee-Scott Academy, said they implement programs that introduce letters and sounds through interactive characters.

McLeod also said their main focus is to help the children mature without the rush of learning everything in a single school year.

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"Children learn at such different rates," McLeod said. "We give them the material in fun and exciting ways, and in pre-K they have the gift of time to learn it."

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