- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama’s small, but highly rated pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds will be growing because of a federal grant announced Wednesday.

Alabama is getting $17 .5 million in development grants as federal officials award more than $226 million to 18 states, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced. The grants are renewable for three more years.

The development grants are meant to help states with small preschool programs or none at all, officials said in a written statement. Federal officials said they expect the grants to help states develop high-quality preschool programs in urban, suburban and rural communities.

Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of the nonpartisan Alabama School Readiness Alliance, said the grant will mean Alabama can move more quickly toward its goal of making high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten programs available to all 4-year-olds. The alliance has worked with the Legislature and governor to increase funding for the program in recent years.

Gov. Robert Bentley said he has been pushing to expand the program because it works. “A strong foundation is critical to a child’s education, and Alabama’s First Class voluntary pre-k program provides that to the children who are able to participate,” he said.

Currently, 12 percent of Alabama’s 4-year-olds, or about 7,370 children, are enrolled in 410 classrooms across the state. The program has a state budget of $38.5 million for this school year. State officials said that if the federal grant is renewed for the next three years, which they expect to happen, then Alabama could add 400 more classrooms serving 7,200 additional students.

The program is managed by the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs, and the classes are offered through public and private programs.

In May, the National Institute for Early Education Research said Alabama is one of only four states with pre-K programs that meet all 10 of its quality benchmarks. State test results from 2013 showed that every third grader who had been through the pre-K program scored proficient or above in reading.

Eufaula businessman Bob Powers, co-chairman of the alliance’s Pre-K Task Force, said the federal grant shows Alabama’s program is on the right track.

The task force recently announced that it’s planning to ask the Legislature to increase the state allocation by $13.2 million to help boost enrollment over 10,000. Powers and Muhlendorf said that remains the goal for the legislative session beginning in March.

Gov. Robert Bentley planned a news conference Monday afternoon to comment on the grant.

Other Southern states awarded grants were Tennessee and Virginia at $17.5 million each, Arkansas at $15 million and Louisiana at $2.4 million.


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