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Macon County in desperate need of additional preschool slots; Highlands eyes $8 million renovation project

Research has shown that children’s lifelong well-being is positively associated with early childhood services, including formal schooling such as preschool and kindergarten. Access to early childhood services are at a capacity across Macon County, leading leaders across the county to begin looking for solutions.

“There is always an abundance of interest in our program and oftentimes we have had individuals call when they became pregnant to put their child on a waiting list,” said Brooke Keener, Director of Exceptional Children/AIG/PreK for Macon County Schools. “This was not a sustainable practice keeping waiting lists 5 years in advance. We ask interested parties to begin contacting us and looking for applications in March of the year they’d like their student to enroll in one of our preschool programs.”

Region A is the non-profit organization responsible for administering North Carolina’s Smart Start and NC Pre-K initiatives in the seven western-most counties and on the Qualla Boundary. Right now, they have 48 classrooms in their coverage area and 96 teachers.

Macon County Schools Preschool Overview

Macon County Schools currently has space for just under 100 preschool spots, all of which are located in the Franklin area between the five available preschool spots. The school district’s preschool classrooms are located at South Macon (two classrooms) Iotla Valley (two classrooms) and one at Cartoogechaye.

“Currently in Macon County Schools we have 5 preschool classrooms and each classroom has 18 student slots. That allows us to serve 90 students. Today we have 88 students enrolled,” said Keener. “We have put out applications to our community for Fall 2022 enrollment and we have currently 44 completed applications that have been turned into us. Even for returning students, a new application must be filled out every year. Applications are due April 20th.”

Calls received by Macon County Schools this year expressing interest in enrolling their student at the following preschool sites:

At IVE: we have 22 inquiries
At CAE: we have 30 inquiries
At SME: we have 28 inquiries

“In our program we prioritize serving 4 year olds in these classrooms,” said Keener. “We do take 3 year olds who are developmentally delayed and are placed in these classrooms by an IEP (individualized education plan team). As a retention incentive, we do take 3 year olds that have a parent employed by the Macon County School system.”

Cartoogechaye Elementary has one classroom with one teacher and one teacher assistant. The district has nine slots that are specifically for NCPK 4 year olds. These students must meet income guidelines and/or have documented medical/developmental needs. NCPK spots are subsidized by Region A. The other nine slots are private pay slots. This class is currently at its 18 student max capacity.

Iotla Valley Elementary has two classrooms. Each classroom has one teacher and two assistants. These classrooms are made up of developmentally delayed students, NC PK students, and private pay students. These classes are currently at max capacity with 36 students.

South Macon Elementary has two classrooms. Each classroom has one teacher and two assistants. These classrooms are made up of developmentally delayed students, NC PK students and private pay students. South Macon currently has 34 out of 36 spots filled with the two unfilled spots being for private pay four-year-olds.

Macon County Schools is looking at an expansion project at East Franklin Elementary that will add preschool classrooms to that school for the first time in the district’s history. With available COVID19 relief funding, Macon County Schools is looking at adding six classrooms to East Franklin Elementary, which will also include preschool space.

Highlands funding request

The lack of available early learning spots in Macon County is why the Advancing Highlands Education Committee (AHEC) is requesting more than $8 million for renovations at Highlands School. The renovations would include space for two pre-school classrooms, which according to the AHEC committee, would be filled immediately. 

Initially, AHEC was formed to fill a void in technology at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeff Weller with AHEC told commissioners Monday night. However, since then, they have worked to address other needs within the school system, most recently focusing on the need for additional early education opportunities in Highlands. 

Members of the AHEC committee presented to the Macon County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday night explaining that after spending $35,000 on architectural services for a concept to renovate Highlands School, the $8.6 million would be needed to add two preschool classrooms, expanding opportunities for Project-Based Learning (PBL) and provide CTE (Career Technical Curriculum) for students.

According to the planning study, space needs at Highlands School are two pre-K classrooms at 1,200 square feet each, 36 students and a playground that is 2,700 square feet. For project based learning and career technical education, the planning study found that there needs to be labs/maker’s spaces added to the elementary, middle and high schools at 1,200 to 2,000 square feet each, more square feet in the media center and independent learning areas.

Weller explained that the new pre-K classrooms are being proposed to be  integrated into the elementary wing with long-term enrollment flexibility and proximity to existing plumbing. There will be an adjacent playground area that is fenced in and landscaped/screened from car traffic, which is required by the state for preschool classrooms. 

In addition to preschool options within the Macon County School system, there are private preschool and early education options in both Highlands and the Franklin area such as Macon Program for Progress in Franklin and the Gordon Center in Highlands. However, even with options outside of the school system, there remains a long waitlist for families in Macon County. 

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services lists about a dozen registered childcare families in Macon County who have spots available for 951 children under the age of 5. Those spots are primarily for children 3 or older, or preschool-aged. There are only 48 infant spots, 109 1-year-old spots, and 146 two-year-old spots in the entire county. At the last U.S. Census done 10 years ago, Macon County’s under 5 population was at nearly 1,800.

According to Maci Bears, a fourth grade teacher at Highlands School and a member of the AHEC committee, there are children on the waitlist for spots in the private preschool programs in Highlands who have not even been born yet. 

“Implementing public preschool bridges a large gap in learning,” said Bears. “Studies have shown that an efficient early childhood education reduces the need for special education by 39 percent by the third grade. Special education costs nearly twice as much as regular classroom education.”

While Macon County’s biggest hurdle for providing additional preschool classrooms within the school system currently is the lack of space for the classrooms, Janice Edgerton, Executive Director for the Region A Partnership for Children said there is a lack of staff to fill the classrooms that are available now. 

Alison Tate, who has been working with AHEC is set to retire this year after operating one if Highlands preschool programs for over a decade. Tuesday night she told commissioners that even though they have been trying for two years to find a replacement to take over the program, there is a lack of qualified staff which may result in having to close the program. 

According to Tate, the two existing preschool classrooms in the Highlands area are currently at capacity and have a waitlist of 87 children.  

Richard Delany with Old Edwards Inn addressed commissioners and said the lack of childcare in Highlands is an economic issue as employees moving to the area don’t have options for childcare, therefore, can’t work. Without childcare and early education options for potential employees, Delany says that Old Edwards struggles to fill needed spots and experiences a staffing shortage.   

As Bears noted when speaking to commissioners, early education is also crucial for the overall development and long-term benefits for the community.

“While a public preschool would serve the entire community, it would be especially beneficial for our English Language Learner population. Having children immersed in a new language at a young age supports their oral development, leading to higher reading ability in the future,” said Bears. “Unfortunately, as of the 2021 NCDPI data, 61.6% of English Language Learners placed at a Level 1 out of 5 on the Grade 3 Reading EOG last year. These children deserve an opportunity to become proficient readers, and that begins in preschool. As a teacher, I focus a lot on the importance of fluency and reading. However, there are several other benefits to preschool education for our community. Children who attend quality preschool are proven to be more successful at socializing, regulating emotions, interacting with others, and gaining confidence. Children who go to preschool are more likely to be employed, own a house, and have a savings account. Preschool is crucial in the foundation of a child’s life, and the entire community only reaps the benefits in the future. It is time for all of our Highlands community children to be allowed access to public early childhood education. ”

The funding request from AHEC is just one of the requests Macon County Commissioners are considering for capital improvements across Macon County this year. The Macon County Board of Education reviewed more than $24 million in capital outlay requests during their February board meeting. After a lengthy board discussion, the school system approved $10,569,960.44 in capital outlay requests which will be submitted to county commissioners as part of this year’s budget planning process. 

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