FLORENCE — Some local state legislators got a tour Monday of the W.C. Handy Early Childhood Development Center, and came away more convinced than ever that the additional appropriations this year to the state's First Class Pre-K was money well spent.

The visit, organized by the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, was in part a "thank you" to lawmakers for this year's $26.8 million increase in state appropriations, but it also showcased one of only 10 centers in the state that house all Pre-K classes for 4-year-olds under one roof.

State Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Greenhill, and Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, along with officials from the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, VOICES for Alabama's Children and the Alliance's Pre-K task force, toured the Florence School System's new child development center that houses 12, Pre-K classrooms for 4-year-olds.

In addition, the center offers one Pre-K class for 3-year-olds and one transition class.

After touring the newly renovated building and visiting in several classrooms, the legislators participated in a roundtable discussion led by Alliance Executive Director Allison Muhlendorf.

She referred to the Florence center as "a model for the state," adding that Lauderdale County is a leader in the percentage of eligible 4-year-olds being served through the Pre-K program.

Only Butler and Marengo counties have a higher percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in Pre-K programs.

Statewide, only 37% of eligible 4-year-olds have access to a program, and with such numbers, Muhlendorf said it is imperative that the program's expansion not lose steam.

Melson told the group he appreciates the efforts of educators to give young children a jump start on their education.

"It's obvious that this is a critical area of investment," Melson said, adding that the state needs to always prioritize appropriately, helping to reach equitable education opportunities statewide.

Melson said a change in mindset is also needed, alluding to the $17 million renovation of the president's mansion at Auburn University. 

"It's simply a matter of prioritizing," he said.

Pettus said he's seen firsthand the advantages of the First Class Pre-K program with his own grandson, who attends Rogers School.

"The change in him is amazing," Pettus said. "Already his speech, behavior and his whole demeanor has changed for the better. As a proponent of mandatory kindergarten, I truly believe in giving kids this early start. I've seen the difference it makes."

Florence Superintendent Jimmy Shaw said he'd like to add three more classrooms, which would allow his school district to serve 270 children, which would account for about two-thirds of the city's student base.

"We're thankful to our lawmakers for their support," Shaw said. 

The center's principal, Michael South, said the emphasis to lawmakers on Monday was that the money is being used wisely.

"This is a happy place, a great learning environment for these children, and it's preparing them for future success," South said.   

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