For more information on Hamilton County Schools' pre-kindergarten programs, go to www.hcde.org/site/prek. For more information on Normal Park's pre-k program, go to www.normalparkmuseummagnet.com.
Normal Park's prekindergarten program came under the microscope recently as at least one school board member questioned the equity of the district's only tuition-based preschool.
Right before the Hamilton County Board of Education voted last week to continue Gov. Phil Bredesen's voluntary pre-k program -- which Normal Park is not eligible for because too few of its students are poor -- board member Rhonda Thurman voiced concern over the application process.
Parents of students who secure one of 36 seats in Normal Park's two pre-k classrooms pay $5,000 for that year. Each student then is guaranteed a highly sought-after kindergarten seat at the magnet school.
"You pay $5,000 and you get a private education," Ms. Thurman said. "That just didn't seem right to me."
But Ms. Levine pointed out that four or five years ago, Ms. Thurman, who was on the board at the time, voted with the rest of the board unanimously to approve the formation of the new pre-k program. Hamilton County's public pre-k programs are for low-income students only, and there was a demand for one any student could attend, Ms. Levine said.
But because the school system could offer her no money to start the classes, her only option was to charge $5,000 per year, she said.
"The only way I can afford to run a pre-k is by charging tuition for it. I try to keep tuition as low as possible," said the principal, who ended up paying less to send her own child to Normal Park's pre-k than she did sending him to day care.
Still, there are plenty of parents who say they would send their children to pre-k at Normal Park but simply can't afford it.
"I could not afford the pre-k prices. I just thought, 'For pre-k?' said Sherry Box, who sent her daughter, Olivia, to another church-based pre-k for about half the cost. "And it being a public school, it is kind of odd."
Although Nakia Massengill was disappointed that her daughter, Tristan, didn't make it into Normal Park's pre-k, she said the tuition would have been a financial strain.
"I'm married, but I would have struggled to pay it," she said.
The application process at Normal Park is a lot like a call-in radio contest, Ms. Levine said. On a certain day in the spring, parents are told to call the school beginning at 8 a.m. and continue calling until they get through. Callers' names are written on numbered index cards.
Ms. Levine said there actually are few spots left for parents who call in because children whose older siblings already attend Normal Park and those who already live in the school's geographic zone are given first priority.
There are at least 85 students on the waiting list for pre-k classes starting in both August 2009 and 2010, Ms. Levine said.
"The most heartbreaking thing about my job is the number of families who call and want to come and I just don't have the space," Ms. Levine said. "The flip side of having a successful school is that now we have the challenge that we have way more families that want to be here than we can accommodate."
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...