COVINGTON — Newton County School System's prekindergarten program will continue as usual next school year.
The Newton County Board of Education unanimously decided Tuesday night to fund the program for a full year. The state is expected to reduce pre-K programs across the state from the current 180 days to 160 days.
"Fifteen days is a lot of school readiness for 4-year-olds to lose," said NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews.
Mathews has warned that the school system's student population is 62 percent at-risk students — who often lack necessary
background knowledge for academic success. He said most teachers in Georgia feel that students completing a pre-K program are better prepared socially, behaviorally and academically in reading and math than those who attend kindergarten after not being in a program.
NCSS has 540 students in the pre-K program — two classes of 20 at each elementary school other than the theme school, which has none, plus an extra class of 20 at Live Oak Elementary School, which has three classes.
To recoup the reduced state funds, Mathews said it would cost the system about $185,000, and the cut could have resulted in a loss of 10 percent in pre-K teachers' salaries. Already NCSS is cutting $8 million from next school year's budgets because of reduced federal, state and local revenues.
Although school board member Jeff Meadors wondered if it would make sense to cut from the pre-K program since the middle and high school levels and other departments already have been cut, Mathews said he would rather look for something else that the system could do without instead of cutting from the pre-K program.
"It's that important," Mathews said.
Board members Shakila Henderson-Baker and Abigail Coggin, both parents who have had students go through the pre-K program at NCSS, agreed with Mathews.
"From what I saw, it's very much needed," Baker said.
She said there were students in her child's class last year who did not know their colors and have other early skills.
"It was really sad," Baker said. "I saw it with my own eyes."
She feared that if those students don't get enough education, they wouldn't be ready to learn in kindergarten and handle things like homework.
"If you don't build a firm foundation when they're young, you can forget about middle school and high school," Coggin added.
Fellow board member Eddie Johnson suggested that NCSS look into having a fee-based pre-K program in the future. Mathews said officials could look at that next school year or after if more cuts come, but some officials worried if that happened that pre-K enrollment would go down because many families who use the free pre-K program at NCSS would not be able to afford a fee-based program.
"I think it's worth it to education for sure and to the community as a whole," Mathews said about keeping the pre-K program, either free or fee-based. "It's a huge investment in little people."
Last month, Mathews told school board members that school officials expect at least three fewer positions at the middle school level next school year that could make up the difference.
"In the coming year, I think we can easily accommodate it and then take it year by year," he said.
Mathews said he and other superintendents around the state plan to meet with state officials in the future to express their concern over cutting education, especially early childhood education.