Universal Pre-K in Mecklenburg County still has openings, officials say

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Universal Pre-K program in Mecklenburg County kicks off soon, but there are still hundreds of open slots.

Funding for the major initiative was approved by the Mecklenburg County Commission in June.

It's free to low-income families who qualify. It's also costing the county $8.75 million with a tax hike of $19/year for a person with a $250,000 home.

This first year of the program has slots for 600 students.

There are 288 of 600 spots filled across all participating child development centers, according to the nonprofit running the program, Smart Start.

Karen Smith-Jones owns Nana's Place, one of the participating centers. She has been busy preparing for her new class of Pre-K students to start in October.

"Oh my goodness, Pre-K is so important," she said, "They've learned how to self-regulate, and they've learned social skills. They've learned what a classroom experience is like. They are ready and able to learn when they get to the next level."

Before it kicks off, she hopes it fills up. They still have four spots open.

"It's understandable that the attendance is a little light right now. It's a new program," County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said. "We need to give it some time for enrollment to go up and get a year under our belt. But I do think we need to have an honest reassessment at the end of that first year if attendance numbers don't get to what was projected."

He said it's a worthwhile program, but they need to see how the next year plays out, especially as the county has a goal to make Pre-K available to all students in the years to come.

"Certainly, hopeful that more kids will take advantage of this program," he said. "We just need to make sure that we are not putting a lot of money into a program before we have measured acceptance of the program by the community."

Smith-Jones attributes the slow start to awareness and marketing and said they're getting out there to spread the word.

"We are working hard to take Mecklenburg County out of that bracket of not moving students out of poverty. We want to do that, but we can't do it if we can't reach these students."

Channel 9 asked Smith-Jones about the tax dollars being spent.

She said the county can pay now, or pay even more later. She said in the long-term, early childhood education helps to reduce things like incarceration and retention rates.

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