Children attend Pre-K at Warren County’s Mariam Boyd Elementary School in Warrenton. Photo Credit: Warren County Schools.

By Lindsay Wagner

Without the necessary time and money to build more elementary school classrooms to satisfy the General Assembly’s requirement to lower class sizes next year in kindergarten through third grades, Warren County Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Ray Spain says he’s looking at eliminating most or all of his Pre-Kindergarten classes districtwide.

“It’s going to be disastrous.”

Spain says he’s forced to consider this scenario because there’s simply not enough space in Warren County’s elementary schools to give the older children more teachers and smaller classes while also giving low-income 4-year-olds an early learning environment that, a large body of research says, is critical for their success in kindergarten and beyond.

For districts struggling to comply with the new class size law, which lawmakers created to produce better academic outcomes for students in grades K-3, creating more space in elementary schools is going to take more time—and money—than what the General Assembly has given everyone to work with.  And even temporary solutions, like trailers, will take significant resources to procure—resources that state lawmakers didn’t provide, districts leaders have said.

The General Assembly enacted the new class size limits in 2016 but didn’t appropriate enough funds for districts to hire more teachers for the increased number of smaller classes. By fall of 2018, North Carolina schools must offer classes in grades kindergarten through three that are considerably smaller than what they are now, and the combined need for funding and space is forcing many locales to consider cutting back not only on Pre-K, but also the arts, music and physical education.

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Warren County, situated to the northeast of the Triangle and sharing a border with Virginia, is a small, rural district that is poor. One hundred percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to data from the Department of Public Instruction website.

Pre-Kindergarten, or “Pre-K,” is a program for four-year-old children from low-income families that is funded with federal and state dollars and is a critical service provided to the community free of charge. Warren County also provides both transportation and meals for children who participate in the program, which is invaluable to families that are struggling to get by.

For young children who have the opportunity to participate in Pre-K, the early classroom experience provides them with a strong educational foundation as they enter kindergarten—one that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

“Pre-K is really the place to ensure the readiness of children so they can be more successful during the K-12 continuum,” explained Joyce Mahomes, Warren County’s Title I director and manager of the five Pre-K programs that are in place in all four elementary schools across the district.

Approximately 100 children in Warren County who qualify for Pre-K could lose out on that opportunity thanks to the General Assembly’s class size mandate because it is putting a squeeze on the district when it comes to space, said Dr. Spain.

“We are in a small, rural district and all our elementary schools are older facilities that are not able to handle large enrollments,” said Spain.

In order to create additional classrooms for the smaller K-3 class sizes that lawmakers have required as outlined in House Bill 13 passed last year, Warren County would have to build out new brick and mortar structures, which would be a years-long process and not something that could be done in time for fall 2018. And, Spain said, it’s an option for which there’s not any funding, either.

The other solution would be modular units, or trailers.

“But it takes time and money to get those, too,” said Spain, who predicts a rush on those trailers as most of North Carolina’s school districts scramble to build out more classroom spaces to comply with the class size law.

“Unless we can get some kind of waiver, it’s just going to be disastrous,” said Spain. “We’ve not been given sufficient time or funds to make the accommodations necessary to comply with the law.”

The disaster, says Spain, will be that he’ll have to eliminate all of Warren County’s Pre-K programs.

“I really don’t want to think about having these children have to stay at home,” said Spain.

If Warren County stops providing access to Pre-K, Spain says there are two alternative options for families in his district. Children that otherwise would have gone to school stay home and either a parent has to stop out of the workforce or a relative or friend has to care for the child, or families could turn to the private child care market.

But the latter option is likely not going to be a real solution for many struggling families, as those service providers usually don’t provide transportation to their facilities — a deal breaker for most, says Spain.

And only one private child care provider in Warren County is NC Pre-K certified, possibly entitling them to additional funding streams that could offset the cost of private care for families. At other child care centers, the cost of attendance could be another huge deterrent for low-income families—-and the private child care market may lack the infrastructure to handle a flood of children that would normally attend Pre-K in district elementary schools.

“It’s really an impossible situation,” said Spain.

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Warren County isn’t the only district grappling with the possibility that their Pre-K classes will be affected by the General Assembly’s new class size law.

In Henderson County, the school district provides in-kind classroom space, utilities and custodial support to eight Pre-K classes that are operated by partner agencies, said Dr. Jan King,  Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.

“We love our preschool partners,” said King. “But as we are pushed for facility space, we have to consider every option.”

That option would be to boot all eight of those Pre-K classes out of district elementary schools in order to comply with the class size law.

“We really don’t want to displace those classes,” said King. “As a community, we value preschool and its impact on student readiness for kindergarten. So we like seeing as many students in Pre-K as possible.”

The two partner agencies that run the Pre-K programs would be forced to find—and likely pay for—new classroom space, which is not a guarantee.

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David White, Chief Executive Officer, Western Carolina Community Action.
Photo Credit: WCCA.

David White, the chief executive officer for Western Carolina Community Action, one of the two partner agencies in Henderson County that runs Pre-K, says if the district is forced to take back their in-kind support for classroom space, it could mean serving dozens fewer children next year.

“If the district has to cut all six of our classrooms next year, I don’t see how we can continue serving the same number of children that qualify for Pre-K,” said White. “Thanks to licensing codes it’s very hard to find the appropriate space, not to mention the fact that we simply don’t have the funds to cover that.”

“The other shame here is that the legislature recently approved an expansion for NC Pre-K beginning next year,” added White. “So in addition to not being able to serve dozens of children that would already qualify for Pre-K, we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the new expansion approval that would have allowed us to serve another 18 children.”

Camden County in northeastern North Carolina is also looking to displace about four Pre-K classes from their elementary schools, said Camden County Board of Education Chair Christian Overton.

“With the new law coming, we are just going to need more space,” said Overton. “It’s not a comfortable or good situation, but we are considering taking those classroom spaces back from the Pre-K program.”

Overton said Pre-K used to be offered to Camden students in a private facility, but the district made a decision a few years ago to house it in their elementary schools—in part because they believed it would be a positive experience for Pre-K students to gain early exposure to their future school facilities and staff.

If the Pre-K program is forced to relocate, Overton says he’s not sure what will happen but feels pretty confident that the program will continue somewhere in his district.

But displacing Pre-K is just one of many options Camden County Schools and many other districts are considering in their efforts to comply with the new law to lower class sizes. Cutting arts and music, increasing class sizes in grades 4-12, reassigning students to different schools—everything is on the table.

And Overton said there is a larger issue at play when it comes to laws that the General Assembly enacts without accompanying them with the resources necessary for their implementation.

“We’re given these mandates to comply with the law, but not getting any funds to help increase the number of classrooms or teachers. So what’s the next step? If we don’t have more funds to pay teachers, do you RIF [lay off] other personnel to hire them?” said Overton.

Overton took issue with the argument from some lawmakers in the General Assembly who say that districts simply need to do a better job managing the funds they have been allocated by the state.

“Our budgets have steadily decreased over the past several years,” said Overton. “Speaking for our own district, we have been very frugal and forthcoming in the spending of our funds to produce positive outcomes for our children—and the performance of our schools show that.”

“At what point does one more unfunded mandate added on start to have negative impacts on our ability to improve a child’s education?” Overton said.

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