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Haywood Schools think outside the box to bring pre-K to more kids

More kids will get a critical early start in education thanks to an expansion of the pre kindergarten program offered on-site at public schools in Haywood County.

Until now, the in-house pre kindergarten program run by the school system has been for low-income children only and funded entirely by government subsidies. But despite the proven importance of kindergarten readiness, there’s not enough state and federal funding to serve all the kids who technically qualify for subsidized pre kindergarten, leading to a perpetual shortage of pre-K slots.

“We always have a waiting list,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.

But even for middle- and upper-income families paying out-of-pocket, it can be tough to find space in a formal, curriculum-driven pre-K program, simply due to  high demand and limited supply.

“There are waiting lists all over the place for four-year-olds in the county,” Nolte said. “Hopefully we can fill that void and achieve some educational goals at the same time.”

The expansion is a classic win-win, Nolte said. The pre-K program will be opened up to those paying tuition out-of-pocket. That move, in turn, makes it possible to also add slots for low-income kids on subsidies.

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There will be 24 slots created for private-pay kids and eight new subsidized slots, moving from a total of 64 to 72 slots.

The school system has been looking for ways to eek out more slots for low-income kids, given the waiting list each year. But the school system receives limited funding for subsidized pre-K, which in turn limits the number of students it can serve.

Nolte described the new model as a numbers game. Each pre-K class has two teachers and 16 kids. The school system had enough funding for a few more kids, but not enough to add a whole additional class.

But by padding the enrollment with kids paying their own way, the school system could round out the roster to make up a full class. And by spreading the private-pay kids around, the school system will actually end up with two more classes than it had before.

“I feel like we have really created something with nothing here,” Nolte said.

Under the new model, six elementary schools will have an in-house pre-K class — compared to four currently — with 12 slots in each class for low-income children on subsidies and four slots for those paying private tuition. 

The program run by the school system isn’t the only pre-K option in Haywood County. There are several preschool centers that offer formal, curriculum-based pre kindergarten classes as well.

A few are private preschools that offer pre-K classes on a full-tuition basis only, but they are in high demand and can be tough to get into.

Others offer a mix of slots — some for kids paying full tuition out-of-pocket and some for kids who qualify for state and federal subsidies. 

Before opening up its pre-K program to private tuition-paying students, the school system questioned whether it would be unduly competing with existing preschool centers that have pre-K programs. 

“We wanted to make sure this new service did not compete financially with our community childcare providers,” said Anne Garrett, Haywood Schools Superintendent.

The school system surveyed pre-K programs in the county to verify that they, too, have waiting lists, even for students paying tuition out-of-pocket, to make sure it wouldn’t be horning in on private facilities by tapping the same pool of families. 

Also, the school system has intentionally priced tuition on the higher side.

“We were also very careful not to undercut private programs in the community,” Nolte said.

Haywood is borrowing the new model from other counties that already pad their pre-K programs with tuition-paying kids to maximize the total number of subsidized slots they can offer. Polk County in particular was cited as an example, and its robust pre-K program could be a factor that makes it a top-performing school system, Nolte said.

Nolte cautioned that the school-run pre-K may not be ideal for working parents who need all-day, year-round childcare.

“This is not childcare, this is school,” Nolte said.

The pre-K program operates on a standard school schedule, with no gap care during summers and holidays or during fall, winter and spring breaks.



More pre-K on the way

A pre-kindergarten program run by Haywood County Schools will be expanding next year. 

There are currently pre-K classes at Hazelwood, Central, Jonathan Valley and Meadowbrook elementaries. Two new Pre-K classes will be added, and in the name of geographic parity, will be sited in Bethel, Clyde or Canton.

The pre-K classes are open to any child in the county, regardless of whether they are in that school’s district. A random drawing will determine who gets the limited number of private-pay slots.

Contact the school system for more information on enrollment.

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