MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) — Alabama’s nationally recognized First Class Pre-K program is expanding. There are roughly 70 new classrooms across 30 counties for the state’s youngest learners this fall.

Halcyon Elementary School in Montgomery has a waitlist full of parents who want their child to have a spot in one of those classrooms. Teachers like Teshia Brown see why there’s such high demand.

“Pre-K is the foundation,” Brown said. “I used to say kindergarten. But now that we’re doing Pre-K, I realize more and more that these years, four-, five-year-olds, it’s the most important time.”

Brown said it might look like play, but students are building communication and socializing skills that are the fundamentals of learning. It’s an experience the state is looking to bring to more students.

Right now, about 46-47% of four-year-olds statewide have access to the state’s free Pre-K, with the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education aiming to get that number to 70%.

One challenge is having enough teachers in classrooms. Amanda Sanford with the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education said that’s something they’re working on.

“We have a whole new incentive program that we’re working on right now called ECE Works with apprenticeships to get teachers on board to grow that workforce and grow the whole pipeline,” Sanford said. “So that’s definitely something that we know we’re going to have to address in the future to reach that 70% goal.”

This year’s education budget puts $12 million more toward the office that administers Pre-K.

Director of Early Learning for Montgomery Public Schools Kimberly Sharkins said she’s glad to see continued support in expanding the program.

“The expectations are just a lot higher, and we need to help our children have that strong foundation,” Sharkins said. “And that opportunity needs to be for every child.”

In May, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Alabama First Class Pre-K as the nation’s highest quality state Pre-Kindergarten program for the 17th year in a row.