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Early education gets a financial boost in South Carolina

Published: Jan. 11, 2021 at 7:27 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The COVID-19 pandemic continues to create learning barriers for our state’s youngest students, and many parents have been faced with the challenge of having to stay home from work because some schools aren’t fully open, and they can’t afford child care.

This week, Governor Henry McMaster dedicated $5 million dollars from the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund to the South Carolina First Steps 4-year-old kindergarten (4K) program to help change that.

Right now, SC First Steps provides free, high-quality 4-year-old kindergarten in private childcare settings for 2,300 low-income families all over the state. The governor’s $5 million dedication will expand the current 4K programs, and his FY2021-22 Executive Budget proposes $20.9 million for statewide expansion of full-day First Steps 4K programs.

“That’s going to nearly double the number of children SC First Steps 4K can serve,” SC First Steps Executive Director Georgia Mjartan said.

First Steps 4K is serving children and families in 39 of 46 counties and, for the first time ever, they are actively recruiting families and providers statewide because of these new funds.

“We serve families who qualify for our programs because of economic hardship or because they are eligible for Medicaid, and of course, across South Carolina that need has grown,” Mjartan explained. “At this point, over 60% of our states 4-year-olds qualify for free full-day 4K.”

SC First Steps’ 212 centers across the state have been open five days a week since June 1. Thanks to this $5 million from the governor, all facilities will soon be open eight hours a day and run through the summer. The 4K program has made it possible for parents, like single mom Dorothy Love, to return to work.

“Childcare is one of the biggest chores of parenthood,” said Love. “Childcare is one of the biggest bills, but for it to be a free program, it has definitely alleviated a lot of stresses.”

Love’s 4-year-old son Nasir attends Spring Valley Early Learning, and she says she’s noticed improvements in his vocabulary and writing.

“It’s one thing to go to work and know you have someone to watch your children while you’re at work, which is good,” Love explained. “But it’s also another a thing to know that you have them there where they are safe, where they are getting the learning tools that they need.”

Right now, several school systems are only offering hybrid or virtual learning models, and SC First Steps believes young learners will fall behind if they aren’t inside a classroom.

“We are going to have a whole generation of children entering school not ready, and when kids start school not ready, they stay behind throughout their school, and unfortunately, life career,” Mjartan explained. “That’s why programs like this that are happening live in-person, where kids can enroll today, that’s why they are so critically important now during this COVID pandemic.”

Mjartan says each family should make their own decision, but if you want your child back in school, this program gives you that option.

SC First Steps says its 4K facilities are following safety precautions, and because there are only around 40 children in each center, they say they’ve been able to keep both children and educators safe.

In the past two days, Mjartan says more than a dozen families have signed up for their children to start on Monday. You can check to see if your child may be eligible and enroll in the program at www.Free4KSC.org.

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