The Alabama Legislature has approved a $26.8 million increase in the Fiscal Year 2020 Education Trust Fund budget to create more classrooms for the state's 4-year-olds.

Friday's approval puts the funding amount for the state's First Class Pre-K Office of School Readiness at $122.8 million. That's up from $19 million just seven years ago when the push began for pre-kindergarten classrooms around the state.

The total Education Trust Fund budget is $7.1 billion.

This year's pre-k funding expansion is the single largest to date, signifying the state's commitment to early education, according to officials with the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.

Alliance co-chairman Bob Powers said the passage of the bill by both the state Senate and House of Representatives shows "they're all in agreement that our state should provide more families with the opportunity to voluntarily enroll their child in the nation's  highest quality pre-kindergarten program."

Area school systems as well as independent facilities have applied for additional classrooms to be added in the upcoming school year.

The increase will enable the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education to create  200 additional classrooms and raise the total percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in the program from 32 percent to nearly 40 percent.

In 2012, the program enrolled just 6 percent of Alabama's 4-year-olds. Incremental increases in funding, urged by the Alliance Pre-K Task Force, have played a significant role in the program's expansion.

The Lauderdale County school system houses  the most pre-K classes in northwest Alabama with 15. School officials are looking to add six more this year, for a total of 21 classrooms countywide.

"These classrooms aren't in our (system) K-12 allocations but when principals take on the program, it is a big part of our schools," said Amy Jones, Lauderdale County's director of instruction and federal programs.

Each school in the district has a waiting list for pre-k services. In most cases, the waiting lists range from 25 to more than 50.

Each Pre-kindergarten classroom can serve 18 students. Classes are filled by lottery-style drawing.

Jones said the program's benefits are numerous and is free of charge to parents in the Lauderdale district. The single drawback is a lack of space at some schools.

Colbert County school officials are hoping for additional classrooms at New Bethel and Hatton elementary schools.

"We would go from nine classes system wide to 11," said Colbert Superintendent Gale Satchel. "This is simply a matter of serving our youngest citizens. The importance of education for our youngest children can't be overstated and our Legislature gets it. We appreciate our state support."

The area's first pre-kindergarten classroom, located at the Northwest Shoals Community College Child Development Center, continues to be a model for the state.

Program Director Jacque Jefferys said the investment in early education is paramount, and the state's First Class Pre-K program is hitting its mark.

The funding for the program is in year seven of a 10-year campaign to offer access to all Alabama families.

"There remains a huge need, even just basing it off our own waiting list here, at 92," Jefferys said. "We've been pleased that the state has followed through with the commitment to pre-K. We've had the classroom upgrades and equipment as we've needed them to keep our classrooms relevant."

Pre-kindergarten teacher Jennifer Robbins said her classroom is currently undergoing a transformation with new equipment and learning resources. 

"The upkeep of this program is a vital part of it with the proper equipment and resources and the state has been wonderful to provide updates when needed," Robbins said. "The children leaving this program, without a doubt, are ready for kindergarten and that's the goal."

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