When a child with freshly combed hair and an oversized backpack walks into the first day of kindergarten, 90% of that child’s brain has already developed.
Development continues over the next several years, according to researchers with Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, but it’s during those first five years — roughly 2,000 days — that a person establishes the foundation for cognitive, social and emotional growth.
“While there’s obviously the ability to continue to learn, the issue is that it will take more time and effort,” said Amy Barry, executive director for Buncombe Partnership for Children, or BPFC.
For children’s development to be optimized, they need to be engaged and challenged during those first five years. But how can parents, who often have jobs and other children, ensure their kids receive all the tools they need to grow into critical thinkers with emotional regulation and social awareness?
According to Barry and the rest of the BPFC team, the answer is simple: preschool.
Unfortunately, since preschools operate outside the government’s K-12 education funding, access to the resource is sometimes unattainable, especially for low-income families.
That narrative could soon change in Buncombe County after the government voted to award BPFC more than $3 million of its American Rescue Plan Act money to improve funding and resources for local preschool programs.
ARPA for preschool
The goal of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, or ARPA, is to assist local governments in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolstering early childhood education is an acceptable ARPA expense, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury guidelines, as the field was drastically impacted by the pandemic.
Isolation plagued most people during the pandemic, but researchers say children may have borne the brunt of this seclusion. With fewer family friends to pass the baby off to and only parents around to answer a 3-year-old’s toy phone, social and behavioral issues skyrocketed during the first two years of the pandemic.
A report from the National Center of Early Education Research shows that during that time, caretakers reported peer, conduct and prosocial behavioral issues among young children at two times higher than typical years.
“Our teachers have a lot of experience in teaching the content area, and they’re really good at that, but they need students who are emotionally ready and socialized in that kind of setting,” said Deanna LeMotte, BCFP’s early childhood systems coordinator.
Last year, LeMotte conducted a focus group with kindergarten teachers throughout Buncombe County who said some of their greatest challenges arise when children have not been adequately socialized or screened for developmental or learning disabilities, which usually happens when a child is enrolled in preschool.
But in Buncombe County, many children are not enrolled in preschool.
While forgoing preschool is a choice for families that can afford for parents to stay home or to pay for child care, for other families, it’s not. Those families look for assistance from government programs like the NC Pre-K program, which provides free preschool for qualifying children.
But only 35% of Buncombe County families eligible for NC Pre-K — those who make at most 75% of the state’s median income, or about $43,000 for a family of two — are currently enrolled in the program.
Buncombe Partnership for Children posits the lack of NC Pre-K enrollment is due to many things, such underfunding from the government, confusing application processes and poor teacher pay.
That’s why the nonprofit is using its $3.2 million ARPA award to implement a six-part plan to vitalize state-funded preschool programs.
“This grant allows us to build on and strengthen the local NC Pre-K system,” Barry said.
“The long-term goal is that we can actually expand slots, serve more children in a capacity that allows families to participate in a much easier way through extended hours.”
The plan for pre-K
To achieve North Carolina’s goal of 75% of eligible children enrolled in NC Pre-K, BCFP will use more than $1.7 million in ARPA funding to supplement the N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources’ contribution to the program.
If a preschool receives NC Pre-K funding, that means the state pays for 60% of the annual cost of preschool for a certain number of students, or “slots.” The state determines the number of slots a school receives.
Eight preschool programs in Buncombe County, including Asheville City Schools, receive NC Pre-K funding and, now, will consequently receive some of the county’s $50.7 million in ARPA funding.
Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, BPFC will use the federal dollars to cover the 40% — about $2,620 per slot — not funded through NC Pre-K. The total cost of a preschool student slot is $9,900 annually, according to BPFC.
“On the provider side, one of the major barriers is funding,” said Buncombe County Director of Strategic Partnerships Rachael Nygaard about the state’s “inadequate per-child reimbursement rate.”
The ARPA money will ease this barrier for preschool providers by fully funding all NC Pre-K slots for two years.
Providers will also see the federal money at work internally as the ARPA dollars will be used to align the salaries of preschool teachers with local K-12 teachers.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s pay schedule shows K-12 teachers with no experience starting with a $35,000 salary. No such schedule exists for early childhood teachers, who earn a median salary of about $31,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Establishing pay parity among preschool and K-12 teachers will cost more than $50,000 in ARPA funds for two years, according to the partnership’s ARPA application.
“The intent with the higher pay is to reduce turnover,” Barry explained. Buncombe County lost 16% of its early childhood education staff from 2020-21, mostly because of poor wages in light of the pandemic, she said.
ARPA dollars will also provide preschool staff with tutoring, classroom relief time and stipends in the hopes, Barry said, that more teachers will gain birth-to-5 teaching licensure, which is required for lead teachers in NC Pre-K funded classrooms. BPFC plans to work with local colleges and universities on this initiative.
The partnership will also hire a program coach to go into each of Buncombe’s NC Pre-K classrooms and assist teachers with curriculum development and connect them to training and educational resources. The position will cost about $140,000 in ARPA funds for two years.
The remaining ARPA dollars will be used to enroll potential additional NC Pre-K providers, create task forces to develop solutions to transportation barriers and support the Buncombe Pre-K portal, which BPFC launched last year to simplify the NC Pre-K application process.
BCPF anticipates these projects will help eliminate roadblocks preventing accessible, quality early childhood education, Barry said, and push the county closer to ensuring all children have what they need to thrive during their first 2,000 days.