It’s not often that Alabama is ranked high at much of anything, aside from college football. A major exception is the First Class Pre-K program, which continues to be recognized nationally as one of the top state-funded pre-kindergarten programs.

“Clearly, what we have going on in Alabama is working,” Gov. Kay Ivey said earlier this year in a speech to early childhood professionals.

And she’s right.

According to the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education website, for the 2018-19 school year, 18,576 children were enrolled in the Pre-K program, representing 32% of the state’s 4-year-old population.

When the program began in 2005, it served 1,026 children – less than 2% of the state’s 4-year-olds.

The success of the program has touched all 67 counties in Alabama, and the Shoals area has embraced First Class Pre-K as an integral part of the overall educational process. In Lauderdale County, 53% of our 4-year-olds are enrolled in the Pre-K program, and 46% of Colbert County’s 4-year-olds are enrolled.

And the W.C. Handy Early Childhood Development Center is one of only 10 centers in the state that house all Pre-K classes for children under one roof.

A group of state officials came to Florence this week to tour the Handy center. The visit convinced them the state’s growing investment in the First Class Pre-K program has been money well spent.

State Rep. Phillip Pettus of Greenhill has experienced first-hand the benefits of the program. His grandson is enrolled in the Pre-K class at Rogers School. The change the lawmaker has seen in his grandson has made him a believer.

“His speech, behavior and his whole demeanor has changed for the better,” Pettus said after Monday’s tour of the Handy center. “… I truly believe in giving kids this early start. I’ve seen the difference it makes.”

The lingering drawback to the effort is the program’s availability, especially in rural school districts. State statistics for the current school year show there were nearly 5,500 students waiting for a chance to participate.

Hundreds of 4-year-olds, and 3-year-olds, here in the Shoals have names on waiting lists. Florence Superintendent Jimmy Shaw wants to add three more classrooms at the Handy Center, which would allow his district to serve 270 children, or about 67% of the city’s student base.

State lawmakers are keenly aware of the growing demands for the Pre-K program, which has expanded year over year from its inception in 2005 with $4.3 million in funding. This past legislative session, lawmakers increased the program’s funding by $26.8 million.

The state is entering the third year of an expanded early education effort dubbed the Pre-K through 3rd Grade Integrated Approach to Early Learning (P-3 for short).

Currently, 1,348 children are impacted by the P-3 program. With the addition of 41 new classrooms, more than 2,100 students will be participating in the P-3 program this school year.

The University of North Alabama’s Kilby Laboratory was awarded $30,000 in April as part of this program’s expansion.

If this next phase of Alabama’s early childhood education initiative proves to be as successful as the Pre-K effort has been, it should help put a damper on the “dumb” jokes that are far too prevalent for our liking.

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