When Oak Ridge Schools Preschool Principal Lisa Downard was first asked to lead the program six years ago, she admits she was afraid. While she had an extensive background teaching special education in elementary schools, she knew just how high the stakes were with Tennessee’s youngest learners.
“I thought to myself ‘the only 3 – 4-year-old year I’ve worked with is my own son,’” reflected Downard. “It only took me seeing one child getting out of the car to come into this school to make me realize this is where I needed to be. It has become my passion.”
And her passion shows. With the support of the school district, the board of education, city leaders and the community at large, Downard and her staff of early educators have built a model Pre-K program dedicated to educating the whole child.
Two-hundred students strong, the program boasts 12 classrooms of 18 or fewer students – each led by a certified teacher and teaching assistant. The curriculum is play-based, and classes are in a state-of-the-art building, which opened in the spring of 2020 for the sole purpose of housing the Pre-K program.
Realizing a dream
Keys Fillauer, chairman of the Oak Ridge Board of Education, remembers the tremendous amount of work it took to get a new home for the Pre-K program, but to him it was well worth the effort and the investment.
“As a board of education, we feel Pre-K is a valuable asset to our school district,” said Fillauer. “It helps children to grow, so when they are ready to move forward, they’ve been given the opportunity to be prepared. A dream would be that all children would be able to attend a preschool like Oak Ridge’s.”
That’s a dream Downard has too – a dream she and Fillauer know can’t become a reality without additional funding.
“I truly wish we could serve every four-year-old in this city. Is there too good of a start for a child? I don’t think so,” said Downard. “And that’s what we do. Give them that support to help them be ready. There’s no such thing as too ready.”
Current VPK families among the lucky ones
The Oak Ridge Pre-K program currently has a waitlist, and they are not alone. Statewide, more than 75 percent of school districts cite combined waitlists of thousands of students, and only 22 percent of 4-year-olds in Tennessee are enrolled in a state-funded program.
Valeri Bradley counts herself among the lucky ones. Her twins Jaxson and Luke got into the program after a speech therapist suggested they apply. In just 2 – 3 months, Bradley noticed significant improvements not only in her children’s speech, but also in their overall behavior. She feels certain they will be better prepared for kindergarten because of the structure, the new activities they’ve been exposed to, the socialization with other children, and the love and support they’ve received from their teachers.
“Our kids wake up excited to go to school. It’s been a gamechanger for them and a lifesaver for our entire family,” said Bradley. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t want that for all children.”
A historic opportunity for change
For the first time in 15 years, Tennessee has the opportunity to expand the Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program through SB 2179 / HB 2201. Sponsored by Sen. Ferrell Haile and Rep. Rebecca Alexander, the legislation would direct a portion of sports betting revenues to VPK, giving more 4-year-olds the option to attend.
It’s a bill that Downard hopes will pass, but she knows there are naysayers. To them, she has a simple request: “Come visit us. Talk to some of our families. Look at the success of our students. Come see what we do.”