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Lowcountry parents have another option for early education

Charleston WCSC-TV logo Charleston WCSC-TV 7/14/2021 Nick Reagan
a close up of a sign: A $15 million expansion for First Steps 4K will allow the free Pre-K program to come to Charleston. © Provided by Charleston WCSC-TV A $15 million expansion for First Steps 4K will allow the free Pre-K program to come to Charleston.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The search for more comprehensive childcare just got a little easier.

South Carolina First Steps just announced it is now able to offer free, full day, four-year-old kindergarten anywhere in the state. The First Steps 4K program started to provide Pre-K programing for families only living in high poverty areas.

“Because of a change in legislation we can now offer 4K statewide,” South Carolina First Steps Executive Director Georgia Mjartan said. “The General Assembly followed the vision of Governor Henry McMaster to make this amazing curriculum-driven, full day, full year program for 4-year-olds available to all 4-year-olds who qualify.”

This year Gov. Henry McMaster asked the legislature to prioritize Pre-K education programs and lawmakers responded by allocating $37 million. First Steps received about $15 million of that allocation to expand their operation. The other half went to school districts directly.

“South Carolina First Steps is offering First Steps 4K in over 230 different childcare centers, charter schools and private schools and the window to enroll more providers is still open,” Mjartan said. “Before this year, there were about 40 percent of children who would otherwise be eligible but could not take advantage of First Steps 4K because we were not allowed to serve them. But now we are a statewide program.”

Because school districts receive their own funding to run Pre-K programs, you won’t find a First Steps 4K program associated with a specific school district. Mjartan says by partnering with private nonprofit and faith-based organizations they are able to give parents even more options.

St. John Catholic School in North Charleston is one of the facilities that will now offer the program. Principal Karen Durand says she’s been looking for a way to do more for low income families in her area for a while.

“We are so excited because even just in the community around us there are students that could walk to St. John and come to school every day whereas it might not have been an opportunity they had previously,” Durand said. “We try to help out with tuition assistance and things like that but the need at this level is so much bigger. To be able to offer spots in a 4K program to our community is huge. It really is just a beautiful thing.”

In order to be eligible, students have to be 4 years old by Sept. 1 and qualify for Medicaid or similar programs.

CLICK HERE to see qualifications.

Mjartan says these programs are not daycare, but rather, education designed to prepare students for kindergarten.

“We use an evidence-based curriculum. . . From the social-behavioral to motor skills, but also language, literacy and math skills,” Mjartan said. “What we have found is that when they take that kindergarten readiness assessment, they are scoring at the highest level much more frequently than their peers who are also in poverty.”

First Steps offers a searchable database that can be used to locate facilities.

Mjartan says they have also partnered with the Department of Social Services to provide childcare for the siblings of those in the First Steps 4K program as well.

“When a family member enrolls their child in First Step 4K they are automatically eligible for a full year scholarship for any other child in their household from birth through age 12. For those school school-aged kids that’s after school and summer care that’s fully paid. For the younger siblings it’s a scholarship that allows them to go to a high-quality childcare center,” Mjartan said. “This partnerships makes it possible for parents to return to work.”

The Charleston County School District and Dorchester District 2 still have spots available in their Pre-K education program. First Steps 4K has numerous facilities that are still accepting applications as well. You can find a consolidated database of all Pre-K programs here.

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