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Giving them a head start
Lawmakers show support, impact of state pre-K programs
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State Sen. Jack Hill reads to pre-kindergarten students at Effingham County High School. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

The more than 40 children in Ebenezer Elementary School’s pre-kindergarten program sat on the floor Tuesday morning, waiting anxiously for state Rep. Jon Burns to read a book to them.

When Burns arrived, he sat right down on the floor with them. He smiled and laughed along with his attentive audience as he read “If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” enjoying the moment as much as they were.

Burns was one of several local dignitaries who read to Effingham County pre-K students as part of Georgia Pre-K Week, commemorating 20 years of the state’s lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program.

“What a great experience for me,” Burns said. “Pre-K is such a great start for these young people. We know it’s the basis for the remainder of their education.”

After reading the book, Burns asked the children what part of it they liked best.

“When the pig got all sticky,” one child said.

“When he got in the bath tub,” said another.

“This is a fun pig,” Burns summarized with a smile after nearly every student chimed in.

“I like to hear that response. It’s great to talk to them and listen to their ideas,” Burns said afterward. “They are so smart, and you can tell they’re well-prepared because of these teachers. Their behavior and their intensity for listening shows they’re getting that on a regular basis.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jack Hill was at Effingham County High School, reading “David Goes to School” and “The Legend of Spookley, the Square Pumpkin” to a class of pre-K students.

Hill said he was “amazed” by the students’ knowledge, such as being able to explain what the title page of a book is or knowing that “tardy” is another word for being late.

“Those things just indicate they’re thinking and they’re learning and they’re retaining,” he said. “The pre-K program just does a great job of bringing kids from all different backgrounds and molding them to go into our school systems.”

Hill acknowledged “it’s always good (for legislators) to put a face on a budget” at a time when the state is making education cutbacks. State officials trimmed the pre-K school calendar by 20 days last year and 10 this year, and the class size maximum was raised from 20 students to 22.

About one-third of Georgia Lottery revenue goes into pre-K, but lottery funds are not increasing from year to year. This year, the state is providing $1,974,713 to Effingham County for pre-K.

“There are studies that indicate, as far as return on the dollar, pre-K might be the best dollar we spend,” Hill said. “A dollar invested in high school or middle school is a wonderful dollar, but if a child never gets to that point where they’re competing like other children, all that other education will really go to waste.”

Effingham County’s pre-K program has grown to more than 500 students in 23 classes. It began two decades ago with six classes and, like others across the state, was for students designated “at-risk” because they lived below the poverty level or had some other disadvantage.

“They wanted to start at the bottom, because that’s really where the learning happens,” said Jan Davis, one of Effingham County’s three pre-K resource coordinators. “To begin with, it was for children who were considered at-risk, so that they would be on a more even keel in kindergarten.”

All of Effingham County’s pre-K slots are filled this year and more than 70 children were on the waiting list when the school year began. Davis hopes parents with a child in pre-K will take advantage of it by being actively involved in their child’s education.

“We have a very open door in pre-K,” she said. “We want parents coming in. Part of our job is to teach parents how to teach their children.”