Originally created 06/30/03

First Steps faces steep cuts



BISHOPVILLE, S.C. - Parents will find fewer classrooms next fall for 4-year-olds who need extra help learning colors, counting and socializing with other children before they start kindergarten.

First Steps, which had helped school districts create more pre-kindergarten classes for more than 3,000 needy children the past few years, faces steep spending cuts.

Despite the program's success, kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds are too expensive to fund, and First Steps officials say they are concentrating their efforts on younger children and parenting classes.

It has forced already cash-strapped school districts to find other ways to pay for pre-kindergarten programs, which introduce children to computers and boost reading levels and motor skills.

"You've got to have a place for your child to stay, but you want them to be in an environment where they're learning," said Lilkenya Rubin, a member of Lee County's First Steps board whose daughter attended the pre-kindergarten program last year.

Superintendent Bill Townes, who had eliminated 30 teaching and staff positions districtwide to deal with budget cuts, turned to the Lee County Council for the extra money that had once come from First Steps.

Mr. Townes said the county agreed to earmark $75,000 for two pre-kindergarten teachers. That means the district can afford four classes, serving 80 pupils. It served more than 100 last year.

He said more than 42 percent of children in the county live in single-parent households and about 23 percent live in poverty.

"They don't have the printed material in their homes," Mr. Townes said. "It saves a lot of money down the road if they can get the foundation early on."

Research shows that pupils involved in the 4-year-old classes performed as well as or better than their peers on the state's standardized exam when they reached the third grade.