Georgia Pre-K: Investing in Georgia's Four-Year-Old Students

April 25, 2013

By Stephanie Sidney & Sam Rauschenberg

This year, GOSA will publish several education updates profiling educational programs in Georgia. The April education update is the first in this series. It provides an overview of the Georgia Prekindergarten (Pre-K) program’s history, enrollment trends, and a recent evaluation of the program’s impact and quality.

Overview of Georgia Pre-K
Founded in 1992, the Georgia Pre-K program offers public, voluntary prekindergarten to all Georgia four-year-olds with the goal of increasing school readiness and improving school performance. Bright from the Start: The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) administers the full-day program. It began as a state-funded pilot for 750 “at-risk” students but was expanded into a lottery-funded, universal program in 1995. Georgia Pre-K is now offered in all 159 Georgia counties at both public and private sites. Each program must teach using Georgia’ Pre-K Content Standards, which are aligned with the Kindergarten Georgia Performance Standards, to ensure students are prepared to transition to kindergarten. Currently, DECAL is finalizing the Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards (GELDS), which will be aligned with the new K-12 Common Core Georgia Performance Standards (CCGPS).
Statewide Pre-K Enrollment Trends

In 2011-12, Georgia Pre-K served 82,868 students. Over the last ten years, enrollment in the Georgia Pre-K program as a percentage of estimated four-year-old population has increased from 53.5% in 2002-03 to 60.2% in 2011-12, as seen in the figure below.[1] The enrollment percentage decreased by 0.5 percentage points from 2010-11 to 2011-12 because the population estimate increased by 1,681 children while overall enrollment increased by only 260 slots.

Since 2002-03, the percentage of Georgia Pre-K students who are classified as “at-risk” has increased from 43.2% to 57.8%, as seen below.[2] The program now serves a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than in any other year over the last decade.


Despite its growth, the Georgia Pre-K program has sizeable waiting list each year. In 2011-12, 10,652 students were on waitlists across the state, which is equivalent to 7.7% of the estimated four-year-old population.[3] Despite the large statewide waiting list, 28 counties had no waiting list, and 59 counties had waiting lists with less than 3% of the estimated four-year-old population. Each year, DECAL adjusts the number of spaces based upon available lottery revenue.

Comparing Metro and Non-Metro Atlanta Pre-K Enrollment

Overall, enrollment as a percentage of the eligible population is smaller in counties located in the ten-county Atlanta metropolitan area than in other counties across the state.[4] In 2011-12, only 52.8% of the eligible population were enrolled in Georgia Pre-K in metro Atlanta; whereas 66.2% of the eligible population were enrolled in the rest of the state. However, the waiting list to attend Georgia Pre-K programs is larger in metro Atlanta relative to the rest of the state.

2011-12 Enrollment Patterns Between Metro and Non-Metro Atlanta


Number of Students

Percent Enrolled

Percent At-Risk

Percent of Estimated Four-Year-Old Population on Waiting List

Metro Atlanta





Non-Metro Atlanta





Source: The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL)

Recent Study Shows Benefits of Georgia Pre-K

At the request of the General Assembly in 2011, DECAL commissioned researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) to examine the outcomes of Georgia’s Pre-K program. More specifically, the focus of the evaluation was to determine whether Georgia’s Pre-K students progressed in learning at a greater rate during the time they participated in Georgia’s Pre‐K Program than would be expected for normal developmental growth without Pre-K. In addition, the study sought to determine what factors make a greater difference in student learning and development.

Study Design

Researchers randomly selected 100 of 3,922 Pre-K classrooms and then a sample of 509 children in these classrooms during the 2011-12 year. They assessed students on the following:

  • Language and literacy (letter knowledge, letter‐word identification, vocabulary, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness)
  • Math (math problem-solving and counting)
  • Basic self‐knowledge
  • Behavioral and social skills.

Researchers also used hierarchical linear model (HLM) regressions to examine what factors are associated with differences in developmental and learning outcomes. The models included family income, gender, English language proficiency, classroom quality measures, and program and teacher characteristics.

Finally, researchers examined classroom practice quality using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R). This 43-item instrument examines classroom environment and practice for developmental appropriateness.  Researchers also examined teacher-child instructional interactions using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), a widely-used instrument that many programs use to improve quality. Both instruments use a 7-point scale.

  • Children enrolled in Pre-K made statistically significant positive gains from the beginning to the end of the year on all assessment measures. The gains outpaced normal developmental growth for children their age, but as the study notes, the gains cannot be attributed fully to the program because the study design did not include a comparison group.
  • Spanish-speaking, dual-language learners showed growth in skills in both English and Spanish, although their growth tended to be greater in English.
  • The most consistent predictor of skill attainment was a student’s level of English proficiency.  
  • Other strong predictors include having a higher proportion of non‐English‐speaking children in the classroom and attending a pre‐K program in a local school system, particularly where more teachers are certified.
  • On ECERS-R, the mean score was 3.6 of 7 points, placing Georgia Pre-K classrooms in “medium quality” on the instrument.
  • On CLASS, classes scored highly on emotional support, positive climate, and teacher sensitivity to student perspectives.
  • The factors listed above that were included in the regression analysis did not consistently predict either ECERS-R or CLASS scores.

The full study can be accessed here.


In sum, over the last decade, Georgia Pre-K has expanded to serve more than 60% of the state’s four-year old population. In addition, nearly 60% of the students it serves are considered “at-risk.” A recently published evaluation shows that Pre-K students made statistically significant gains in language and literacy, mathematics, basic self-knowledge, and behavioral/social skills, even though the report also found that classroom practice, environment, and teacher-student interactions are of mid-level quality. As such, the Georgia Pre-K program provides an important foundation for Georgia students.



[1] The estimate of four-year-old population is based upon annual census estimates. This calculation also does not include students enrolled in prekindergarten programs not included in Georgia Pre-K.



[2] “At-risk,” as known as Category One, is defined as the child’s and/or family’s participation in one of the following: Food Stamps, SSI, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Child and Parent Services(CAPS) program, or Peach Care for Kids. Children who participate in the free and reduced meal program through the school that they attend may also be eligible as Category One if income eligibility is verified on each child and kept on file for review (Source: Department of Early Care and Learning).



[3] Data provided by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.



[4] The Atlanta metropolitan area, as defined by the Atlanta Regional Commission, includes Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale counties.