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More Than Half Of Mecklenburg 4-Year-Olds Are In Public Pre-K

Lisa Worf
WFAE file photo

Just over half of Mecklenburg County's 4-year-olds are now enrolled in free public prekindergarten, according to a report presented Wednesday at a joint meeting of the county commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

The county has three such programs: Bright Beginnings, NC Pre-K and  Meck Pre-K. Their combined enrollment is 5,960, not quite 51% of the county's 11,742 kindergarten students. That's what staff used as an estimate of the total number of 4-year-olds.

The goal is to hit 80% by 2024. 

"People marvel at what we are embarking to do, which is to make sure every single 4-year-old has the opportunity in Mecklenburg County to have a quality early childhood education," said Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who led the push to pay for pre-K. "That is a huge thing, and I want to acknowledge that for our community."

Meck Pre-K, which is only in its second year, is the newest program.  The county's early childhood education manager, Tameika Leslie, said public education for 4-year-olds not only prepares children for school but to promotes upward mobility by making it easier for parents to work. The county pays for children to attend existing centers, which also supports employees and owners of those centers, she said.

Each program has different admission standards. The state and county programs are based on family income but have different cut-offs. Bright Beginnings, which is part of CMS and paid for with federal and county money, screens children based on whether they lack skills they'll need for kindergarten.

Fuller and commission Chair George Dunlap said they'd like to see one place where families can apply and be told what their children qualify for.

"Parents are frustrated because they don't know which program to apply for," Dunlap said.

Staff said they're looking at ways to make the programs more consistent and less confusing for families.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.