A years-long effort to ensure there's a prekindergarten seat for every local child has earned the Beaufort County School District an award from a private, state research and policy organization.
The Institute for Child Success has given the school district its Early Childhood Champions of Children Award, recognizing its contribution to improving the state's education system for its youngest learners.
Superintendent Jeff Moss and early childhood education coordinator Ashley Hutchison will receive the award in Greenville on Thursday.
That honor comes as the district embarks on the second half of its four-phase plan to make sure all 4-year-old children enroll in a PreK program, to the end of getting all students to perform on grade level by third grade.
In the 2013-2014 school year, before PreK expansion began and the most recent year available, about 77.5 percent of the district's third-graders met state standards in English language arts, and 74 percent were on grade level in math.
"It will be a few years before we can see PreK expansion's benefits show up in test data for third-graders," spokesman Jim Foster said.
Only about 25 at-risk children are currently waiting for spots in a county PreK program, according to Foster. That number could grow throughout the year, but is a marked improvement from its wait list of about 100 children in past years.
The addition of 13 classrooms in the last two years has helped, as has converting all of its half-day schedules for 4-year-olds to full days. Those changes, which add about $936,000 in costs each year, have allowed the district to serve 140 additional 4-year-olds.
"The support we've enjoyed for this initiative -- not just from our Board of Education but also from our parents and community -- has been outstanding," Moss said. "There's a growing realization that if we can invest more resources at the beginning of a child's education, we'll see educational and social and economic benefits later on."
Still, the district says it will have to continue expanding in order to meet the needs of Beaufort County's growing population.
Another four PreK classrooms are being built at the Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center for about $1.4 million. Construction is scheduled to finish in January, and school officials will decide in the coming weeks whether to begin classes in the spring or wait until August 2016.
The state does not provide money for all children to attend PreK, though Beaufort County received $909,000 for PreK programs for the 2015-2016 school year, up about 70 percent from two years ago but still just a fraction of its $4.7 million budget.
School districts reserve their seats for at-risk students and screen children for factors like poverty, parents with minimal education and indicators of developmental delays.
In phase three, the district plans to offer PreK to every student who meets that criteria.
In phase four, Moss wants all 4-year-olds in the district to have access to PreK, regardless of whether they're considered at risk.
The cost of the remaining expansion was not available Wednesday, as planning is still underway.
By the end of the expansion, the district's PreK classes should serve about 1,600 children, nearly double the enrollment from 2014.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.