In a school system with 70 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, too many Phenix City students come to kindergarten with what is known as the “30 million word gap,” meaning that’s the estimated number of fewer words the poorest children hear compared to the wealthiest children by age 3, said superintendent Randy Wilkes.
“That’s what happens to students in poverty,” he said. “They come to school behind. Unless we intervene and do something different with those students, they stay behind. So K-4 education is very important.”
Phenix City is doing something different and is showing the value it places in pre-kindergarten education. And it was on display Monday, when officials dedicated the Creekside Early Learning Center.
Phenix City early learning coordinator Julie Nordensaid said the octagonal rotunda, where folks gathered for the dedication ceremony, will “definitely lend itself to not only student collaboration but teacher collaboration.”
“We’ve been working diligently but also with great pride and joy because this is such an unusual space,” Norden said.
After pre-K students Jayla Albert and Landrey Cook led the Pledge of Allegiance, superintendent Wilkes continued gave the significance of this occasion additional perspective.
Just before the board hired Wilkes from Crenshaw County in June 2014, Phenix City lost its HeadStart grant after having it for more than 30 years, he said.
“That was a loss of over $1 million annually to our budget,” Wilkes said. “… Thankfully, the governor’s office then and today continues to step it up, to step in and intervene. Today, we have 10 fully funded Office of School Readiness preschool classrooms in Phenix City.”
This year, the school system also has secured approximately $250,000 in grants to support pre-K education, Wilkes said.
All of which enables Phenix City to educate 216 4-year-olds this school year, he said.
“That’s great, but that’s only about a third of the K-4 students that we have in our community,” Wilkes said. “… We’re making progress; we’re not there just yet.”
The school system will use six of the center’s 11 classrooms this school year, so there is space to grow.
Jeana Ross, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, said research shows children in the state’s pre-K program are less likely to fail their grade level, less likely to be chronically absent and less likely to require special education.
“You can see by just the commitment to this fine building the type of high-quality program these children will have,” Ross said.
District 80 state Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, who attended St. Patrick’s School, asserted that “a lot of times” people in poverty “use that as a crutch to fall back on or a reason not to learn or a reason not to be the best. But in Phenix City, we’ve chosen to make that a reason why we can be successful, a reason why we’re going to show the rest of the state what we can be in Phenix City. Thanks to the board and your leadership, we’ve come a long way in the last five years.”
In the past four years, Wilkes said, the city has allocated approximately $700,000 in revenue to the school system, as well in-kind contributions, such as school resource officers.
Mayor Eddie Lowe said, “The city is only as good as the school system, and the school system is only as good as the city.”
Lowe also praised Wilkes.
“We are lifting our community because we’re lifting our young people, and I thank Mr. Wilkes for that,” Lowe said. “… He sees the entire holistic approach for kids. Black, white, Hispanic, poor or rich, he wants to make a difference for our kids.”
To the citizens, Lowe said, “We can disagree. In fact, we can hate each other. We don’t have to like each other. But one thing we have to do is to come together for the sake of this community, and it starts with these young people.”
After the ribbon cutting, officials dedicated a plaque honoring 100 years of “faithful educational service” by St. Patrick’s, which opened in 1916.