Bobby Cagle stood Monday in the pre-kindergarten class at Georgia Regents University Child Care Center and watched as the 4-year-olds danced in a tight throng in the corner to Egyptian music, though it looked more like just jumping up and down.
The commissioner of the Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning would like to give the kids a little more room to move.
Cagle stopped at the center in Augusta as part of his “Across the State” tour to visit child-care centers and meet with local officials. He would like to help give them a gift next year of smaller class sizes in pre-K. Faced with a shortfall of lottery funding that pays for the pre-K program, the state chose to increase the number of children per class from 20 to 22 and shortened the school year, Cagle said.
“That does change the ratio of students to teachers, which we know impacts the quality because quality is in large measure determined by the effectiveness of the teacher, which is determined by the amount of time they can spend with individual students,” he said. Officials have since been able to lengthen the school year from 160 days then to 180 this year.
“The next logical step for us is to consider class size,” Cagle said.
“That would be great,” said Nancy Webb, the director of the GRU Child Care Center, as they toured a classroom.
“Of course, that will depend upon lottery revenues,” Cagle said. “We’re hopeful.”
The GRU facility is one of several in the state to commit to a voluntary program of higher standards that earned it a top three-star designation. That includes following higher standards that teach and model good nutrition and healthful physical activity. It is important that it happens now, Cagle said.
“This is probably the best time to begin to intervene with children and with families to help them become accustomed to what healthy nutrition looks like, what good physical activity looks like,” he said.
The tour of the GRU facility gave him a chance to check on some of the “hot topics” for the department, such as the recently revised sleep standards for infants, Cagle said. The department changed them to conform with the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which include placing the infant on its back with no soft bedding in the crib and not placing the child in a bed or sleeping with parents. The new standards have raised some concerns, Cagle said.
“Parents are really understanding of it, and it really helps them as they take their children home, too, because many parents follow the customary way of putting a child to sleep that their family has followed for many years,” he said. “But what we have learned is that is not always the safest situation.”
Conforming to the higher standards is not easy, Webb said. She showed Cagle a sandy playground for younger children just outside a classroom.
“We had so much rain it washed the sand away and then the grass came up,” she said. Replacing it cost $7,000 but that is one of the safety requirements. Many of them are quite specific, Webb said.
“You must have at least two sets of blocks with at least 10 blocks in each set,” she said.
Many of the safety standards have been insightful, Webb said, and even after 40 years in the field she said she picked up a few things from them. It is important to provide that quality care in facilities, Cagle said.
“If you get children early enough, if you get them the things that they need, then they have a great potential to be successful,” he said. “Every child has that potential.”