Local education groups are making plans for the second year of the Pre-K summer pilot program known as “Little Bloomers.” The goal of the program is to help level the playing field for all children before they enter kindergarten in the fall.

The state’s pre-K program, administered by the Department of Early Care and Learning, is only partially funded by the Georgia Lottery, meaning those families not chosen in random drawings to attend state-sponsored programs must find and pay for private pre-K themselves.

“My own personal opinion is that politicians have found the HOPE scholarship a great way to get votes, so they take (lottery) money from pre-K to spend on HOPE,” said Jean Lowery, executive director of the Dalton Education Foundation, at a Friday luncheon.

“The Department of Education only requires K-12. If pre-K work is being done, it’s because local school districts felt it was important.”

Whitfield County Schools are eligible for two pre-K classrooms, while Dalton Public Schools now have nine. On the other end of the spectrum, Lowery said 37 percent of all Whitfield Countians age 25 and up do not have a diploma or GED.

“That ranks us 142 out of 159 counties in the state. That’s kind of scary,” she said. “We have always prided ourselves on our good local education systems, but we don’t have enough people in the community who value an education.”

The “Little Bloomers” program teaches students all the basics — from letters of the alphabet, shapes, and number counting to proper school behavior. Susie Harrison of Dawnville Elementary School taught the class last year.

“Many come in not knowing how to hold a pencil, scissors, or how to use a public restroom,” Harrison said. “Some come in knowing nothing, but every morning, we went over colors, numbers, and phonics. It was well worth it.”

Children asked to participate in the program are identified by kindergarten pre-registration tests that all students take when being enrolled for the fall. Last year, 117 “Little Bloomers” students taking the pre-test scored 0-to-10 out of 53 possible points, but only one student scored that low after attending the summer program.

Only 12 percent of the students who started the program scored 21 or higher, but 78 percent of “Little Bloomers” scored that highly on post-tests.

“The skills taught in the current kindergarten curriculum weren’t taught until the second grade 20 years ago,” Lowery said. “The (academic standards) keep going up because research shows children can learn and retain a higher level of work than we were giving them credit for. Kids are sponges at this age.”

While last summer’s “Little Bloomers” program served 200 at-risk students over seven weeks, the plan is to serve 400 students over six weeks this summer.

A $170,000 budget — donated by local business, government, and individuals — covered last year, but planners say they can teach twice as many students this year for just $30,000 more, since transportation is being cut out.

Of the 198 enrolled last year — 151 being Latino students — 164 completed the program.

“Many parents send their children in unprepared for school, then they have to pay on the other end of the spectrum,” Lowery said. “What if we could take the money we spend on high school remediation and could move it down to use in pre-K?”

Larry Winter, chairman of the Education Revolution Alliance, part of the “Target Tomorrow” community visioning organization, is one of the organizers of the project.

“Will a six-week program replace 36 weeks of pre-K? No,” Winter says. “Will it give these children some advantages? Yes, definitely. If we can show growth in these six weeks — as we did last year — we can prove to the community how pre-K is in preparing children for school.”

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