A $6.2 million grant will help improve training of pre-K teachers in Mecklenburg County

Families crowded in the gym of the Arbor Glen Outreach Center in west Charlotte early Thursday morning. Some of them held gift bags and flowers, and one family even wore matching shirts.

As more people trickled in, the room got louder as families eagerly eyed a table at the front of the room with a little blue bucket filled with diplomas.

Then just over 30 4-year-old graduates from Dixon Academy started their procession. They wore royal blue graduation caps and gowns as their families cheered and took pictures.

“Let this be the first of many graduations to come,” one of the teachers said.

This graduation was just one of 21 held since the start of the month for the county’s preschool program, MECK Pre-K, which will receive an additional $6.2 million thanks to a goal set by the Foundation for the Carolinas.

The foundation announced earlier this week that it met its private sector fundraising goal to support MECK Pre-K. The money, contributed by 18 corporations and foundations, will be in addition to the $36.9 million the county has already committed to early childhood education initiatives for next year — a $21.1 million increase from last year.

Michael Marsicano, Foundation for the Carolinas CEO, said the donations are the “perfect private-public partnership,” and it only took a month to meet the goal.

“It usually takes much more time, but it’s a testament to how much (the contributors) believe in this,” he said.

The county started MECK Pre-K last year to increase the number of students enrolled in pre-K. Smart Start of Mecklenburg County manages the program.

The additional money from the foundation will go toward teacher development, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said.

The $6.2 million will:

Provide financial support for people with an associate’s degree in early childhood education who want a bachelor’s degree.

Support a grant PNC Bank gave UNC Charlotte last month for a pilot program to train 50 teachers for MECK Pre-K over the next two years. Teachers will be able to obtain their birth-to-kindergarten license while tuition, fees and other expenses like childcare are paid for.

Fund the creation of two “early childhood life navigators” at Central Piedmont Community College to help students respond to obstacles and help them stay in school.

Help people working in childcare centers earn their associate’s degree, which will be the focus of the program, by providing scholarships and support for them to attend CPCC.

MECK Pre-K started last year and has since enrolled 600 students in 33 classrooms. Next year’s county budget plans to double that by adding 36 classrooms.

Tameika Leslie, project manager for early childhood education initiatives for Mecklenburg County, said the county will also look to add more education providers before classes start in September.

Diorio said the county is investing in the program because studies show pre-K helps students show up to kindergarten prepared to learn, and it can aid in upward mobility. She pointed to a study Duke University released this year that showed the state’s preschool programs produced long-term benefits for children.

“We are even more emboldened now with that study coming out that what we’re doing is going to have long-term benefits for these kids,” she said.

Sharon Howard, a grandmother of one of Dixon Academy’s graduates, said having MECK Pre-K’s skilled teachers has helped her grandson after a late start to school. She said teachers “met him where he was” and now he’s on the right track.

“I’m looking forward to more graduations,” she said.

As the Dixon Academy students sat back down after receiving their diplomas and parents wiped tears from their eyes, Roslyn Dixon-Scotchman, the school’s owner, read “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and reminded parents to continue to be involved with their children’s schooling.

“It’s our responsibility as the adults in their lives to make sure they have that confidence,” she said.

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