Some Harris County parents wait up to 18 hours to secure children's spots in Mulberry Creek Elementary's pre-K program

When he arrived at Mulberry Creek Elementary School on Thursday and saw the long line of people out front, Michael Lee muttered to himself, “You’ve got to be kidding.” It was a little after 4 a.m.

Lee, a welder, had just gotten off work. He was tired but that didn’t matter. He parked his vehicle and took his place behind other parents as they waited to register their children in the school’s pre-K program for the next school term. Some were reading. Some were sleeping.

There were 60 available slots. Lee was 60th in line.

“I got here just in time,” he said.

Lee still had a four-hour wait before he could register his daughter, Averi. He knew that was nothing compared to others, some of whom had been outside the Cataula, Ga., school since Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s important to get your child into pre-K,” Lee said. “You don’t want them to be behind others.”

Principal Justin Finney made several trips back to the school through the night to make sure everything was OK. Coffee was provided. So were doughnuts. Somebody brought cheese grits.

“We have never had any trouble,” Finney said.

He can understand people wanting to get their child enrolled. “Harris County has good schools. We’re the center of the Cataula community and parents would rather have their children here than in some alternative place,” he said.

Mulberry Creek, established in 1998, offers pre-K through fourth grade. It is one of four Harris County elementary schools. Park and Pine Ridge each have 60 Pre-K slots, and New Mountain Hill has 40.

First in line at Mulberry Creek was Daniel Archilla, an employee at TSYS. Getting that slot involved teamwork. His mother-in-law, Louise Frazier, arrived at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. After a few hours, his wife, Becky, took over and then he stuck it out through the night before Becky relieved him around 8 a.m.

One reason for getting in line 18 hours before his daughter Alison could be enrolled, he said, was that there had been “loose talk” about a bigger crowd. He was taking no chances.

Debbie Haley was No. 43 but didn’t spend much time at the school. “I paid a friend $200 to be here for me,” said the nurse, who added it would be worth the price to get her daughter, Scarlett, into Mulberry Creek’s program because day care costs her $128 a week.

“I want her to get used to coming to school,” said Haley, who recently moved from Muscogee County. “I want her to begin feeling like a part of all of this.”

Jeff Branham is the director of human resources for the Harris County School District. For the past 13 years, he was principal at Mulberry Creek. “I’d say we average maybe 6-8 families at each school that have to be put on a waiting list,” he said. “It varies from year to year. It’s really not that many.”

He said the pre-K programs are funded by the Georgia Lottery and that the state has a formula based on population to determine how many pre-K students each school may have. He said there have been no changes in the program for this year.

As for the parents spending the night in line at the school, he feels it is more of a tradition than a need.

“They did it every year I was at Mulberry,” he said. “I’ve seen people bring grills. It’s like tailgating.”