Local publicly funded pre-K enrollment rebounds after two years

Published 12:04 am Tuesday, July 19, 2022

SALISBURY — A local agency that had trouble filling seats for the state’s free pre-kindergarten program since the COVID-19 pandemic began has seen those figures rebound.

Smart Start Rowan is in charge of administering the locally funded seats for the state’s N.C. Pre-K program, which provides a quality pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds from families who fall under a certain income bracket.

Rowan Smart Start Director of Programs Laura Villegas said enrollment declined because of the pandemic. Families were concerned and many centers moved to remote and hybrid formats that did not fit schedules for families. Rowan-Salisbury Schools, a major host for those seats, used the hybrid model it adopted for the 2020-2021 school year.

Now remote programs are not allowed without a reason like quarantine procedure and the 330 state-funded seats are full heading into the school year. Smart Start filled 46 seats since the end of June.

Filling the program and keeping up with state guidance for the past two years was challenging. In September of 2020, Smart Start was still waiting on some information from the state even though the school year had already begun. In October of 2020 there were still 50 seats open. In January of 2021 the agency still had 50 pre-K seats open for that school year and was still placing families. At the time Villegas said applications had dried up.

The state recognized demand for the programs would drop from the outset of the pandemic and changed its funding model to pay for the number of allocated seats rather than how many of those seats were filled, but now the program is going back to the 2019 model.

“The state will no longer pay for empty slots,” Villegas said.

Villegas said the organization’s board will consider funding more seats based on the number of pre-approved applications Smart Start will present at a meeting later this week. Villegas said that number is not clear yet.

“I have a bunch of applications on my desk and I don’t know if they are approved, eligible or missing documents yet,” Villegas said.

There are also some students who have dropped out and others who may drop out throughout the year. Villegas is still encouraging parents to apply for seats.

The income threshold for a family of four is $63,412 and the income cap for a family of two is $43,120. In special circumstances a child can be placed above those thresholds. Families can find more information and apply at rowan-smartstart.org.

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About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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