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State Rep. Wes Kitchens spearheading efforts to expand early childhood education access

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program has been ranked as the best quality program in the nation for 15 consecutive years.

However, Alabama’s consistent recognition as being the nation’s leading state in terms of pre-k program quality has not prevented state leadership from attempting to further enhance early childhood education.

Earlier this year, the state legislature created the Joint Legislative Study Commission on Expanding Access to Quality Pre-Kindergarten Early Education Programs. The commission was established to identify solutions that could expand access to early childhood education in underserved communities.

One of the leaders actively partaking in these efforts is commission co-chair State Rep. Wes Kitchens (R-Arab), who recently spoke with Yellowhammer News regarding the state’s efforts to expand existing pre-k programs.

Kitchens asserted that states across the nation are attempting to model their pre-k programs after Alabama’s and advised that as the program grows, leaders wish to maintain the high standard of quality.

“We have people from all over the country look at our program to try to copy and duplicate what we’re doing,” said Kitchens. “We’ve been nationally recognized for many years, but kind of our focus with the commission as we’re continuing to grow… our first objective is expanding access so that the four-year-olds across the state who want to be involved in pre-k have that opportunity. We’re trying to get to that point but at the same time we want to make sure as we grow we continue to maintain the high standards that have been set up.”

Kitchens said that part of the commission’s objective in identifying existing needs was for members to tour pre-k facilities in their districts and around the state.

“Working with all the counties in the state that are underserved right now, what can we do in those areas to create some of those strategic partnerships? Whether it be faith-based organizations, child care facilities, or just encouraging public schools,” he stated, going on to note that collaboration was needed to expand access.

One of the issues Kitchens indicated that the commission found was that some schools were running out of space to expand their pre-k programs. He said that the formation of partnerships in underserved counties would be encouraged in order to provide for facility expansion.

“A lot of the issues that we kind of saw with the schools, they just didn’t have space. They were running out of space and just didn’t have facilities to put a classroom,” said Kitchens. “So, what can we do to help whether it be facilities or creating the partnerships in some of the underserved counties?”

He added that the commission’s goal was “to make sure that we get to the goal of at least having 70% available and then at some point where every four-year-old that wants to attend is able to attend.”

According to Kitchens, an additional focus of the commission has been educator recruitment and retention.

He continued, “We spent a good bit of time looking at the recruiting and retaining educators for the pre-k field… Working on partnerships with colleges and universities where students can become an auxiliary teacher while they are completing their degree, which will hopefully allow them to become a lead teacher. That gives them the hands-on learning to prepare them for a career in education and retain them in Alabama.”

The commission next year will issue a report to the legislature on its findings outlining initiatives which could serve to expand access to families who desire for their children to receive early childhood education.

Chosen by House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) to co-chair the commission’s efforts, Kitchens looks to lead on a vital issue which has been atop the state’s list of priorities for a number of years.

Kitchens, who is already making his impact felt as a freshman legislator, is seeking to become vice chair of the House Republican Caucus.

The second-highest leadership position within the lower chamber’s GOP Caucus will become vacant as current vice chair State Rep. Connie Rowe (R-Jasper) is leaving the legislature early next year to serve as senior advisor to Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth.

As House Republicans hold a 77-member supermajority, holding the role of caucus vice chair is no small task.

However, Kitchens is no stranger to holding upper-level leadership positions as he served nearly four years as president and CEO of the Arab Chamber of Commerce prior to his election to the legislature.

Serving House District 27, which is the seat Ainsworth formerly held before assuming the lieutenant governor’s office, Kitchens, much like his predecessor, has not been deterred from addressing challenging issues.

Whether it be confronting issues related to workforce development, ensuring funding for state parks or working to expand statewide pre-k access, Kitchens has certainly had a hefty workload during his first term of service in the legislature.

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL