"We had 30-plus students that had never been to school before and all we did the whole fall was tell children to sit down," she told a roomful of potential donors to the South Rome Early Learning Center.

The nonprofit ELC was launched in 2015 to prepare local 3-year-olds socially, emotionally and intellectually for kindergarten. It holds a top, three-star rating from the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning and there are concrete signs of its success in the community.

"Our first class is now in first grade and they are outperforming their peers. We don't have access to the data, but the literacy coach at Anna K. is tracking their progress," said Jackie McDowell, the Berry College dean who headed the collaborative effort with the South Rome Redevelopment Corp. and Rome City Schools.

There are two full classes with 38 students, and a waiting list that shows the need for more. A subsidy grant from the state funds 10 full-tuition scholarships — "for the most needy children and their families," McDowell said — with priority given to those in South Rome.

"But, throughout this, I think the biggest surprise has been the parental involvement," she said, explaining the parent education seminars and programs they offer as part of the curriculum.

This will be the first year the South Rome ELC is eligible to participate in the state tax-credit program for private schools. Supporters are hoping donors will sign on, to provide money for more scholarships.

"There is nothing more profound than the opportunity you'll be giving to the children who grow up here to work, to grow and to thrive," Dempsey said following the presentation hosted by the SRRC Wednesday morning.

Rick Gilbert, who chairs the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program board, said the tax-credit program is simple — "and won't cost you a cent."

Established by the state legislature as an outgrowth of the school choice movement, it allows taxpayers to redirect to a private school part of the income tax they owe. Darlington, Unity Christian and Berry Elementary and Middle schools are already getting scholarship money from the program, Gilbert said.

There's a cap on the donations, raised to $100 million this year. Opponents argue that it saps state funding for public schools, but SRRC board member Sam Moss said there's a local benefit.

"Ironically, by directing your money to a private school, the Early Learning Center, you're actually helping the public schools that will be teaching those kids," Moss said.

The deadline to apply is Dec. 15.

Gilbert's nonprofit is one of the qualified student scholarship organizations that distributes the funds. Donors can get details and  sign up online at www.goalscholarship.org.