Faces of poverty: Bolstering the little children

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 8, 2011

Editor’s note: Undergraduate journalism majors at UNC-Chapel Hill recently explored the human dimensions of poverty, unemployment and economic distress in North Carolina. This is part of a series  of stories they wrote.

By Jessica Seaman and Tyler Ford
 Thomas Parker recites the alphabet with his classmates everyday in his More at Four-funded classroom at the Triangle Daycare Center in Durham.
While the 4-year-old, known as TJ, is prepping for kindergarten, his mother, Brittany Purdie, is worried that her 3-year-old daughter, Talia, might not get the same opportunity if state legislators decide to cut the More at Four program.
“I really want Talia in the program because of how much it has helped TJ,” Purdie said.
More at Four is a pre-kindergarten program that provides an educational advantage for 4-year-old children at risk of falling behind in kindergarten and elementary school, said John Prewitt, the executive director of More at Four. He said at-risk children are from families with incomes 75 percent below the state median. For a family of four, their total income would be about $43,000, Prewitt said.
“It is a carefully constructed intervention for at-risk population of 4-year-old students,” Prewitt said. “The majority of children in the program have never been in childcare prior. So it serves an unserved population of students.”
This year the program received about $160 million in funding. In her budget proposal, Gov. Bev Perdue proposed cutting the program by 5 percent next year to help balance the state budget. Prewitt said the cut proposed by the governor would reduce the program’s funding by $4 million, resulting in about 45 fewer teachers and assistants and 800 fewer children in 4-year-old pre-K. Prewitt said that about $80 million of its funding comes from the General Fund, while the other half comes from lottery proceeds. Currently, More at Four serves 30,000 children.
Since the governor proposed her budget, which also included cuts to SmartStart’s state funding, legislators have debated whether various options over how to merge or manage the programs that have made North Carolina a major center of early-childhood initiatives.
More at Four classrooms have been integrated into many elementary schools and childcare centers across the state. Kara Turner, owner of Primary Colors Childcare Center in Durham, has 33 students enrolled in More at Four classrooms.
She said that if the program is cut, it would have a “devastating effect” on her center because the program is a major source of the center’s income.
“The rate for a four-year-old at my center is $805 a month,” Turner said. “I don’t have 33 four-year-olds on the waiting list to take their spot in a regular class.”
Much of the More at Four money goes toward teacher salaries, benefits, and the curriculum, she said.
“If they cut any funds, then we can’t afford those teachers anymore,” Turner said. “And if we can’t afford those teachers, than we don’t meet the requirements to properly run a center.”
Renita Harvey, one of the two More at Four teachers at TJ’s school, believes the program is very beneficial to the students.
“We’ve had kids that didn’t even know what puzzles and crayons were,” Harvey said. “The program gives the kids that extra boost, so that when they go to kindergarten, they are on the right track as the other kids and don’t fall behind.”
Prewitt said the program focuses on fundamental academics, cognitive, social and emotional development, as well as physical health. View from the classroom
If the More at Four program is cut, Purdie will be unable to afford childcare for Talia.
Purdie, whose children qualify for the program because she is a 22-year-old single mother with low income, starts her days at 6:30 a.m. when she gets herself and her children up and ready for school.
They arrive at school between 7:30 and 8 a.m., earlier than most, because she has to get to work early. After her shift is over at 5 p.m., she picks up the children from school, and from there, they go home to eat dinner, “read a few books” and go to sleep to get ready to do it all over again the next day.
“I’ve definitely seen a difference in TJ since he has been in the program,” Purdie said. “He has speech problems as well, and the program has even provided counselors to help him with that and his vocabulary.
In Harvey’s class last year, there were 18 children, 11 of whom spoke English as their second language. She said that in the beginning of the year, many of the students were scared to be in a different environment and lacked many social skills. Over time, she says, she and the other classroom teacher were able to get these youngsters ready for kindergarten.
“If you have five kids that don’t speak English, they aren’t going to get the attention they need and deserve to be able to learn like the rest of the kids,” Harvey said. “We help the kids so they won’t have to face this problem.”
She said that in a More at Four classroom there are nine students per teacher, whereas a regular kindergarten class is allowed to have 25 children per teacher.
“Significant gains are made in the pre-kindergarten year and continues through kindergarten,” Prewitt said. “Children that don’t go through the program have a less chance of being successful in school.”
At playtime in his classroom, TJ and his friends are constructing an imaginary house with building blocks.
He appears to be communicating just fine with his peers. While the speech therapist is there for her weekly lesson with him, he asks to stay so he can finish the house with his friends.
Harvey, laughing, said that this is the same little boy who had speech and communication problems at the start of the school year.
“The children who aren’t used to child care and to the routine of school,” she said, “who lacked social skills, and who didn’t even know what puzzles were; when they firstentered my classroom, when I see an improvement and change in these things, it’s a great feeling.”
Jessica Seaman is a junior from King, majoring in journalism and mass communication and history. Tyler Ford is a junior  from Durham, majoring in journalism.