JONESBORO -- An advocacy group for pre-kindergarten programs urged Arkansas legislators to better fund high-quality preschools to help eventually create a developed workforce and improved economy in the state.
Preschool programs in the state need an infusion of $43 million, Rich Huddleston, executive director for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said at a news conference Tuesday in Jonesboro. He said the money was needed to compensate teachers and assistants and to provide better education opportunities for the 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children who attend the programs.
About 45,000 Arkansas children attend pre-kindergarten classes yearly, he said.
"We need more funding," Huddleston said. "Pre-K is facing some tough choices. Will they cut corners? Have less children? Close doors? The Legislature has to make pre-K a higher priority."
Huddleston, along with school officials, civic leaders and business representatives, held the news conference in the Jonesboro School District's Pre-K Center to tout the Craighead County city's support of the center.
"Jonesboro is a leading example of what we want to see ... in collaborations with the school, business and the community," he said.
The Jonesboro center opened in 2004 with eight classrooms and 120 children, said Diane Roush, the center's director. Today, 298 children attend in 16 classrooms. There are 39 more children on waiting lists to attend the center in 2017, she said.
Erin Hodges, a Jonesboro parent of two young daughters, said her 4-year-old enjoys the center.
"She cannot wait to come to school," Hodges said. "She comes home talking about math and authors and illustrators. It makes my day."
Stephanie Clayton, a Jonesboro School District kindergarten teacher, said children who attend the high-quality pre-kindergarten programs are more prepared for her classes.
"Students are familiar with their alphabet and know their shapes and colors," she said. "They love talking about books, and they are familiar with the classrooms and being one and working together in a classroom."
Business leaders in Jonesboro said they look for a workforce that has early-childhood training in working together.
"We are team-oriented," said Chris Glenn, vice president of manufacturing at Hytrol in Jonesboro. "The earlier we can get involved with our youth, the more important it is."
Mark Mayfield, a Jonesboro attorney and incoming president of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, added that employers seek a "knowledgeable, skillful and able workforce."
"The Jonesboro Pre-K Center enables students to start school on a grade level with their peers," he said. "It plays a great role in developing that workforce."
Huddleston urged parents and leaders to ask legislators to support pre-kindergarten programs.
"We need more advocates. The future of Arkansas pre-K programs is in jeopardy," he said. "The future of the state's workforce and economy depend upon it."
He said Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families will hold other meetings to inform officials of the need for educational funding in the future. The advocacy group also will release a study soon showing the benefits of pre-kindergarten programs and a detailed list of what funding is needed.
State Desk on 03/30/2016