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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, left, and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke prepare to read to a prekindergarten class Tuesday during a visit by Duncan to the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga. Secretary Duncan read to the class before speaking to the public in a town hall meeting about prekindergarten education.

When U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Chattanooga Tuesday as part of his back-to-school bus tour through the South, he talked about something he encounters often: Waiting lists to get kids into prekindergarten classes.

"There's not a state that I go to that does not have a waiting list," Duncan told an audience of about 100 parents, educators and officials gathered in the gymnasium of the Chambliss Center for Children off Germantown Road in Brainerd.

Duncan would like to fix that.

He said federal grant money is available to boost the number of prekindergarten classes around the country.

"Hopefully, Tennessee is going to participate in that," Duncan said. "Applications are due in another month. It could mean as much as $70 million [over four years]."

Duncan said that every dollar spent on prekindergarten education shows a $7 return on investment, because early education reduces such problems as crime and teen pregnancy.

"If we can get the kids off to a good start, it changes their lives forever," said Duncan. "To me, this is just a triumph of common sense. Too many children start kindergarten a year to 18 months behind."

Audience member Lashonda Butchee didn't need any convincing.

During a question-and-answer session, Butchee took a wireless microphone and told Duncan her now 9-year-old daughter is free of a speech impediment, thanks in part to help she got through the Chambliss Center.

"Sometimes, it's not the waiting list," Butchee, a mother of three, told Duncan. "Sometimes, it's that they don't know no better."

Duncan said that it's important for communities to spread the word about prekindergarten education in such places as barber shops, beauty salons and churches.

"This is a campaign," he said.

Duncan kicked off his visit by reading "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" on an iPad, followed by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who read "Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?" to a Chambliss Center class of 3- and 4-year-olds taught by Kisha Fifer.

Berke said the city has 868 kids in Head Start early education and has applied for a federal "expansion grant" to add another 150 kids. He also touted the city's Baby University program that's under development to focus on infants' well-being and development and the creation of youth and family development centers at city recreation centers.

For Tennessee to tap all the federal prekindergarten grant money that's available, Gov. Bill Haslam would have to apply, said Libby Doggett, the federal deputy assistant secretary of education for policy and early learning.

"I don't think [Haslam's] made a commitment to apply," she said after Duncan's Chattanooga visit, which she took part in.

Doggett said 50,000 kids were just enrolled in prekindergarten in New York City, and it's going to spread everywhere, eventually.

"It's going to happen, just like kindergarten did," she said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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