HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - A recent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) shows access to preschool in South Carolina exceeds the national average, but state funding fails to keep pace.
Approximately 27,519 children were enrolled during the 2017-2018 school year, an increase of 3,440 from the previous academic year.
However, state spending per child has decreased by 5 percent this year, falling well below the national average.
“Nationally, we are disappointed by the lack of progress,” said Steven Barnett, NIEER founder and senior co-director.
This year’s report includes a special section on policies affecting the preschool teacher workforce, focusing on salary and benefit parity.
Enrollment has more than doubled since 2002, with almost 1.6 million children enrolled nationwide. Still, expansion has slowed in recent years, according to the report.
"In some states, slow growth is due to a shift from part-day to full-day programs, which can better support child development as well as family work schedules, but nevertheless leaves many children unserved,” said Barnett. “South Carolina is moving in the right direction by serving more children. The state should now expand investment to improve quality standards and provide equal pay for all pre-K teachers, regardless of the setting.”
Dr. Angela Huggins has over 20 years of teaching experience in school districts in Horry and Marion counties, and has seen first-hand the changes within early childhood education.
Recently, Huggins became the director of Coastal Carolina University’s new Early Childhood Development and Literacy Center, which opened last fall. She said a major reason why leaders decided to launch the program was the need in the area, noting that early childhood education is so important because it’s the foundation for future success.
“I’ve seen children be able to do things that we never thought they would be able to do because they’ve had experiences," Huggins said. “I’ve seen children who’ve been able to read and write and ask me questions and explore science and do math that they would have never been challenged to do before because of the standards. But I’ve also seen children who ... who are expected to do things that may not be developmentally appropriate for them. And so I feel like that that’s, that’s something that parents are really looking for right now. They’re looking for a place where their child can be supported as they grow, and that they can be challenged in a variety of ways.”
Amy Gathings has a daughter currently in pre-K in Horry County. She said she wasn’t able to enroll her daughter into public preschool for this school year because of the lack of resources. Instead, she opted to enroll her in a private school.
“She does very well, but I wish that she was in a public school setting so that she could get used to the idea of being in a larger school with older kids,” said Gathings.
She added that preschool has made a significant impact on her daughter’s growth, noting her language and social skills have increased tremendously.
“I personally think that the socialization and being able to get along with other kids and, you know, knowing how to behave in a classroom setting is what’s beneficial to her. She’s learned how to count and do her ABCs and colors and all the other stuff," Gathings said.
Experts say the first five years of a child’s life are especially crucial for physical, intellectual, and social/emotional development. Gathings said she believes early childhood education is part of the building blocks for a better future.
“I just know that the teachers love the children, no matter what," she said. “Like, they wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t love the kids. And I just know that’s all that the kids need is they just need acceptance and love, and they need somebody to nurture them and care for them.”
Huggins said the most important thing education leaders can do to raise state standards is continuing to collaborate with others and combine resources.
Applications for the Horry County School Child Development program are being accepted through May 24.