By Johnny Jackson
Georgia's Pre-K Program ranks third in the nation for accessibility, according to a study released on Tuesday.
A total of 13,180 are enrolled in the pre-k program in Henry and Clayton counties, according to school officials.
The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), at Rutgers University, listed Georgia third among states in its survey of state-funded preschool programs, based on greater access and higher curriculum standards.
The survey results were included in the institute's "The State of Preschool 2009" report, compiled by NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett. The report's top-10 rankings, according to Barnett, are based on enrollment, quality standards, funding adequacy, and evidence of program effectiveness.
"What the results tell us is that Georgia is definitely moving in the right direction," said Bentley Ponder, research and evaluation manager for Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.
Ponder said Georgia's Pre-K Program, established in 1993 and funded entirely by the Georgia Lottery, has expanded its reach to include nearly 60 percent of all Georgia 4-year-olds. He said some 82,000 are currently enrolled in the program, including 6,140 in Henry County and 7,040 in Clayton County.
Georgia's Pre-K Program expects to serve an enrollment of 84,000 preschool pupils this fall, according to Bright from the Start Commissioner Holly Robinson.
Robinson said the program maintains an annual waiting list of just under 8,000 students, and has increased in popularity each year of its existence. Robinson said the program's first students would have graduated high school in 2009, and that the program recently celebrated its millionth student.
"We are thrilled with the outpouring of support that the Millionth Child Celebration has received," Robinson said. "This exciting campaign could not have been successful without our generous partners, outstanding providers and teachers, and most importantly, the one million children who have benefited from Georgia's Pre-K Program."
Robinson believes the state-funded program has garnered its recognition because of its universality and accessibility to residents around the state, and its more rigorous curriculum.
"We are the first universal pre-k program to have served a million children," she said. "We have very clear quality standards that are the same statewide, and we pay based on the credential of the teacher. Teachers are required to have an associate's degree, and by next year, will be required to have a bachelor's degree."
Robinson added that about 86 percent of Georgia Pre-K lead teachers currently have a bachelor's degree or higher level of education.
Georgia fell short on the survey, however, because of the limited amount it spends per pupil in the program, according to Barnett, the NIEER director.
"Declines in real funding per child since 2002 threaten Bright from the Start's place in the top 10," Barnett said. Barnett warned that preschool-age children across the country have felt the impact of the recession as states cut back on early education programs.
"We are seeing a pause in the rapid increase in state preschool programs that we have seen in the last several years," he said. "In some states, enrollment has been cut back to the lowest levels in many years. Other states have cut funding and quality."
Tuesday's "The State of Preschool 2009" report revealed, nationally, that the average amount states spent per child, when adjusted for inflation, declined from $4,179 to $4,143 in 2009, ending an upward trend. Real spending per child declined in 24 of 38 states with programs.
"With more families facing economic hardship, publicly supported preschool is more important than ever," Barnett said. "We need to get the recession babies on a progression path so they don't carry the scars for a lifetime."