In the year since the inception of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Early Education Task Force, the county’s Bright Stars program has expanded, county and city officials have endorsed pre-K expansion and grant funding has placed 20 local children in preschool programs.
But expanding access to pre-K is only one piece of a big early-childhood education puzzle, said Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
Speaking Wednesday at the second Symposium on High Quality Preschool, hosted by the United Way–Thomas Jefferson Area, Pianta stressed that to be effective, programs for children must be full-time and focus on providing quality education — and that means emphasizing student-teacher interaction.
“Right now, in most communities, access has been the big goal over the last 20 years,” he said. “Now, that focus is shifting from access to quality.”
Though student-teacher interaction seems like a simple enough problem, Pianta said, there is a bigger challenge: training teachers to be experts in childhood development.
“We have got to make sure that they are supported and strengthened in the way that they need to be to address these issues,” he said. “I don’t think our training regimens are particularly strong. I don’t think that most of our degree programs across the country are strong enough to meet that.”
In the United States, nearly 70 percent of children overall have access to some form of preschool, but that number drops to between 40 and 50 percent for low-income children, Pianta said.
Those numbers translate to a nationwide expenditure of more than $20 billion annually on preschool programs.
As access itself improves, work on pre-K should focus on sustainable funding streams and tying together service providers and researchers to create a system of early-childhood education, rather than a wide network of separate services, Pianta said.
“These things all need to be addressed at a level of detail that is not currently present,” he said. “The evidence is pretty clear that we can invest in each one of those, but unless and until we pull those together, we lose an element of quality.”
In a breakout session after Pianta’s address, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Education Holly Coy said providers in Maryland and Georgia have managed some level of system unity.
“They pulled these pieces together, but that required someone giving up turf,” she said. “The General Assembly would have to get involved and a lot of folks would need to be convinced it would work long term.”
The task force formed after the symposium last year identified more than 250 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds in Albemarle and Charlottesville who did not have access to quality preschool programs.
Task force members include elected officials, community members, nonprofit workers and leaders and government and school staff and leaders.
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Reaching at-risk children early is key, said Kristen Jamison, a developmental scientist and founder of the Loop Center for Social and Emotional Development.
Research that Jamison presented showed that children from high-stress environments are able to catch up with children from low-stress environments by their early teenage years if remediation begins around age 3.
Catching up takes until at least age 18 if nurturing and remediation do not start until age 10, the research showed.
“It is out-of-control how drastic the change is in children at 3 years old if you can provide high-quality, consistent early-childhood education,” she said. “It is huge.”
Piecing the puzzle together will be a tall order, said Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way–Thomas Jefferson Area and the task force’s chairwoman, but it is a goal to which the task force is committed.
“The Early Education Task Force is all about bolting together everything that Dean Pianta talked about, so we want to thank him for pointing us in the right direction,” she said.