Back to School at Mary Ford Elementary (copy)

Students arrive at Mary Ford Elementary School on the first day of the school year Aug. 15, 2016. Mary Ford students will be rezoned to Chicora Elementary next school year, and its campus will be converted to an early childhood center. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

As legislators tackle universal 4K funding in the Statehouse, Charleston County School District officials are hopeful that a new North Charleston preschool center will pave the way for an overhaul of early childhood education across the county. 

While specifics are still in the works, district officials say that opening the Mary Ford Early Childhood and Parent Engagement Center will be an important step toward reaching universal 4K district-wide.

The school board voted in November to close Mary Ford Elementary, relocate its first- through fifth-grade students to nearby Chicora Elementary, and convert its campus to an early childhood and family engagement center. 

The district will begin to renovate the building, which is on Thomasina McPherson Boulevard off Cosgrove Avenue, this summer to accommodate six 4-year-old classes and six 5-year-old classes, or around 250 students, Associate Superintendent Terri Nichols said.

The center will open in August as the only school in the district solely dedicated to early to 5-year-old education, district spokesman Andy Pruitt said.

It will also offer a variety of family services that could include everything from mental health resources to adult education and parenting classes. Its campus will have two outdoor play areas, new classroom furniture, a garden space and an updated media center.

“This center will go above and beyond,” said Trident United Way's Director of Education Kim Foxworth, who serves on the district's early childhood education project team.

The specific services have not been finalized, Foxworth said. That process will kick off after the district meets with Mary Ford and Chicora families Jan. 28.

At the center of the district's plans for Mary Ford is a new, rigorous 10-standard accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“If we can earn that accreditation, it will go a long way in providing the kind of programming for our schools and our students that we want,” Nichols said.

The district will use the NAEYC standards as a "benchmark to align developmental decisions for the center" that will also guide future plans for universal 4K district-wide, Nichols said. 

Some of these standards include centralizing the pre-K application and screening process, providing professional development training for all early childhood teachers and establishing a standardized curriculum for 3K-5K students. 

"I think just having some real consistency in what curriculum we're offering, making sure we've got the most up-to-date version of that curriculum, making sure that our teachers are well prepared for teaching kids who live in high-poverty, all of those kinds of things, I think, will make an impact on students going through the program," said school board Vice Chairwoman Kate Darby. 

Advocates for universal 4K have argued that high-quality early childhood education is a critical step toward closing the opportunity and achievement gaps some students face.

"I don't think that if you're not an early childhood specialist that you understand how incredibly important early childhood ed is and how specific it is to the developmental state of the child," said board member Priscilla Jeffery. 

There are tentative plans to create two more early childhood centers like Mary Ford in the North Charleston area, but their completion hinges on potential funding from the upcoming 2020 penny sales tax referendum.

The district already serves around 2,000 4K students in 114 classrooms across Charleston County, Nichols said, but it's not enough.

"We really need 4-year-olds, all 4-year-olds, to come to school,” Nichols said. “We’re on our way with 114 early childhood programs, but we need more."

In order to offer universal 4K at the 21 schools where incoming kindergartners demonstrate a “high-need” for early childhood education, the district would still need about 16 additional classrooms. 

But most of those school buildings are already overcrowded and don’t have the classroom space to accommodate more students.

"Our challenge here in Charleston is going to be space," Nichols said. “I mean, some of our northern schools like Ladson are really crowded."

This means the district needs to utilize mobile trailer classrooms, renovate existing schools or build new spaces for early childhood learning, Nichols said.

"There are certainly space issues," Darby said, "But I think the bigger issue is funding." 

Earlier this month, Gov. Henry McMaster called plans to expand state-funded, full-day pre-kindergarten for poor children a “cornerstone” of his proposed 2020 budget.

This could mean more early childhood education funding for some of the state's largest school districts, including Charleston. 

"Gov. McMaster could not have done better for our group than to come out not too long ago in support of Early Childhood Education and more 4-year-old programs, so it's wonderful. The time is right," Nichols said. 

The pre-K application process for Charleston County School District families will begin on Jan. 28. More information can be found under the "Early Learning Community" tab on the district's website

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Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.