Second in a series exploring local education budget initiatives

Last year, 85 children found themselves on the waiting list for Bright Stars—Albemarle’s preschool program for at-risk four-year-olds. This year, that number rose to 90.

Now, in addition to the program’s unmet needs, Bright Stars is facing unexpected cuts of almost 20 percent of its revenues, reductions that could eliminate 7 jobs and two preschool classrooms for 32 students. The impacts were detailed in a memo shared with county officials Friday.

Mike Chinn, who heads SNL Financial and chairs the School Readiness Impact Team—an offshoot of the United Way that advocates for high quality preschool opportunities—said the ball is in local government’s court.

“To the extent that the County administrators and Board of Supervisors has determined that high-quality education is vital, and that access to pre-k, especially for the most at-risk kids, is a key component, then we think they should allocate the funding to make that a reality,” Chinn said.

Due to a $5.8 million budget shortfall, the Albemarle School Board decided at in early February to ask the Board of Supervisors to pick up
$290,000 earmarked for the Department of Social Services to support Bright Stars, part of a $1.2 million budget.

Bright Stars, now in its 18th year, provides comprehensive social services for preschoolers and their families until the child completes 5th grade. In FY13, the program served 169 preschoolers and 559 “alumni” in ten classes at eight schools.

The main qualification for students is that he or she have multiple risk factors beyond poverty.

Last year 27 percent of students were from homes in which both caretakers were unemployed; 79 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch; 31 percent of mothers and 35 percent of fathers did not complete high school; and 27 percent had limited English proficiency.

“The difference between a three-year-old in Bright Stars in October and then April is dramatic,” Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek said.

Last year, 74 percent of Bright Stars students achieved benchmark literacy scores. That number jumps to 82 percent by the end of kindergarten.

In addition to the preschool program, Bright Stars provides family coordinators who address a family’s employment and financial issues. They also involve family members in the school community and teach parents how to support their child’s learning.

Goal one of Albemarle County’s strategic plan is to “Provide excellent educational opportunities to all Albemarle County residents.” Sub point A of that goal is to “Increase the availability and quality of pre-kindergarten learning opportunities and adult workforce development opportunities.”

“We’re looking for very strong and determined leadership,” Chinn said. “If education and pre-k is a priority, we’re likely looking for funding, but also strong and purposeful leadership to advance this more quickly than it has been over the last couple of years.”

Discussing an expansion of Bright Stars to meet the growing waitlist needs, Albemarle Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said the challenges are finding the extra space in the elementary schools and the cost, which an August 2013 Schools and Social Services concept paper estimated at about $1.8 million.

Boyd said he doesn’t think a Bright Stars expansion is a priority for this budget cycle because the County has been “challenged with its capital budget.”

“We did a large addition to Agnor-Hurt, we’re getting ready to do one to Henley, but I don’t think that’s going to help the [Bright Stars] situation at all because of course it’s the elementary schools where we need the assistance.”

Bob Pianta, Dean of UVa’s Curry School of Education, said public-private partnerships can sometimes alleviate a school division’s capacity issues.

“I would be looking at where in the community there are sites where good preschool is being offered that might be able to absorb some additional children,” Pianta said.

In these cases, a Bright Stars student’s allocation of $3,000 would follow the child to a private preschool provider.

The issue with this approach, Ralston said, is that many private providers’ tuitions exceed the Bright Stars per pupil allotment. 

Additionally, Schools officials have said they want preschool classrooms housed in the students’ home elementary schools to get a jump start on building relationships with the families, and to ensure students can use the division’s transportation—an element many of the families involved struggle to provide.

Given the tight fiscal picture local government faces, Mallek said she welcomed contributions from the private sector.

Chinn said business is likely to contribute when it sees an analytical approach being taken.

“We believe that one of the first things is to figure out what works,” Chinn said. “When you’re talking about at-risk kids, we want time and energy spent on looking at the long-term outcomes associated with kids who went into those programs to determine that the programs are as or more effective than anything else in the community.”

“We’d want that to be done before we advocated for those who have funding to give to a certain program,” Chinn added.

As for growing Bright Stars, Pianta said he’d advise a two-fold approach.

“First I would make sure that those current dollars that are being spent are being invested wisely in educationally intensive programs,” Pianta said. “Then I would have a separate strategy around an informed and systematic approach to expansion.”

To accomplish this Pianta suggests examining the birth to five-year-old census, and population projections, as well as working creatively with state officials to unlock additional funds.

“And I would look carefully at ways that these issues of expansion and coverage for vulnerable kids can be potentially leveraged by…an increased blending of services,” Pianta added.

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel said the topic deserves a community conversation.

“I think what we need to do is sit down together, the Board of Supervisors and the School Board and perhaps the Chamber of Commerce, and bring in other groups and talk about our vision for education in Albemarle County and where we want it to go,” McKeel said. “If we stay where we are, we’re static and nothing is going to change.”

Mallek said that, moving forward, the Board of Supervisors could budget to expand.

“The School Board has said that if it’s important to the Board of Supervisors that they will find the bricks and mortar places to do it,” Mallek said. “It’s on my list to consider.”

At present, Chinn warns against cutting Bright Stars’ funds.

“It would clearly be a huge step backward for at-risk children to have funding reduced,” Chinn said. “For us to take a step backward here when research says this is the place to invest, especially for at-risk kids, and when we have strategic goals 1 and 1a, it would be hard to reconcile, should that come to pass.”

The Board of Supervisors will resume budget talks on Monday, March 3.