In 17 years of teaching, Wayne County's Wee Wings program is the most successful program Kimberly Cassidy says she has ever been a part of.

Ms. Cassidy teaches the mobile pre-K class, housed in a retrofitted school bus, to 48 students split into six classes throughout the week. The bus, which is funded by federal Title 1 money, travels across the county to bring pre-K to students who otherwise would not have the ability to attend.

Ms. Cassidy said the changes in her students from beginning to end are remarkable.

"Some children who come in here have the ability to draw sticks and circles, but most don't. By the time they leave here, most of them are able to write their names," she said. "It is amazing what they can learn just from breathing in this atmosphere."

Wee Wings is just part of how pre-K is implemented county-wide, and Wayne County Public Schools is looking to expand the program to reach more students in the coming school year. Providing access to pre-K is a vital step in making sure children are ready for school, said WCPS director of elementary education Carol Artis.

"Rather than wait until they get to second and third grade and notice there is a reading deficiency, pre-K is a way to front arm, to arm these children who may have come into school lacking in words, lacking in skills, and lacking in socialization," she said. "The gap is bridged, we level the playing field."

Pre-K programs in Wayne County are run through the NC Pre-K program, a state system that sets standards for Pre-K instruction. NC pre-K is targeted primarily at lower-income families, with slots reserved specifically for students from low socioeconomic status. Ms. Artis said this is to make sure that the students in the most need have access to help.

"If you are from a middle-class background, or you have the wherewithal, you will take them to Small World or Kinder Care or that type of thing," she said, referencing two prominent daycare and pre-K centers in Goldsboro. "They have North Carolina pre-K classes, and they have regular pre-K classrooms. But, you simply have to pay for it."

By offering pre-K classes through the public schools, Ms. Artis said, the district can offer free pre-K to a wide range of students from diverse backgrounds without their families needing to pay.

The system has drawn some criticism, however. At a joint meeting between the Wayne County Board of Education and County Commissioners March 21, Commissioner Joe Daughtery questioned the reasoning behind spending time and resources on Pre-K.

Daughtery said that the district should focus on getting grades K-12 "running smoothly" before the district expands into new programs.

Tamara Ishee, WCPS assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said at the meeting that the district will not run smoothly if high-need children are not prepared for kindergarten ahead of time.

The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, a major 1960's research project which tracked the progress of pre-K students through their 40's, backs up her statement.

The study found that low-income black children who went to preschool achieved substantially higher long-term results than those who did not.

In particular, low-income black students who went to pre-K were 45 percent more likely to graduate high school, and 50 percent more likely to earn more than $20,000 per year by age 40.

Ms. Artis said that students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are more likely to become truant and get in trouble with the law, leading to their lower graduation rates.

The Perry study found that low-income black students who attended pre-K were 46 percent less likely to have spent time in jail by age 40.

School board District 4 representative Jennifer Strickland said at the meeting that she had been trying to move pre-K out of the public schools for some time. She later clarified that her primary concern was for space, as pre-K classes inhabit rooms that could be used for additional elementary classrooms in an already overcrowded school system.

Mrs. Strickland said she was not in favor of cutting pre-K programs, and acknowledged their importance.

She said, however, that the needs of pre-K students should be weighed against the needs of elementary school students who may need the space.

"You have to ask, at what point are 17 3-year-olds more important than 124 4-year olds," she said.

Wayne County currently offers pre-K at nine locations: Brogden Primary, Carver Elementary, Eastern Wayne Elementary, Fremont STARS, Meadow Lane Elementary, North Drive Elementary, Northeast Elementary, Rosewood Elementary, and School Street Early Learning Center.

Ms. Strickland suggested that the classes be moved to School Street, where five pre-K classes already exist, or that the district cooperate with private pre-K schools to expand free classes there.

Expansion efforts are already underway, although they are targeted toward increasing pre-K participation rather than moving around existing students.

The district is currently seeking a grant to bolster the Wee Wings program, which currently operates with one bus. The program had a second vehicle, funded through the County Commissioners, until that bus fell into disrepair. The district decided to take the funds allotted for that vehicle and use them to provide the same half-day classes at School Street, with priority registration given to those families whom the Wee Wings bus used to travel to.

A grant, which the district is in the early stages of finding, would allow for the Wee Wings program to run two buses while keeping the School Street classroom. Ms. Artis called that situation a "utopian society" for the district.

She said that access to pre-K and literacy is valued in the community, citing support from lawmakers, local business people and medical professionals.

"This isn't a bandwagon that I'm on alone," she said. "It is a community initiative where people from different vantage points realize the need for pre-K and realize the need for early literacy, so we can impact not just test scores but learning and literacy for all of our children."