Albemarle pre-K programs highlight successes, challenges

Albemarle County pre-K programs are enjoying robust student success rates, but might soon have an issue finding enough space for their students, county schools staff reported Thursday.

A presentation to the School Board by county schools, Bright Stars, Title I and Head Start staff showed the programs serve more than 350 students in 12 schools in the county.

Literacy and phonological awareness in 4-year-olds in Bright Stars improved 51 percentage points, from 16 percent to 67 percent, between the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015, the report showed. Numeracy improved 56 percentage points in the same students over the same period.

The county Bright Stars program grew by one classroom, at Cale Elementary, and 28 children this year, said program coordinator Ann McAndrew.

“The county Board of Supervisors allocated additional funding for the Bright Stars program this school year,” McAndrew said. “With that and the addition of one student per classroom, we were able to serve 28 more children this year.”

In the Head Start program, which is federally funded and administered by the Monticello Area Community Action Agency, language skills jumped 32 percentage points, from 53 percent to 85 percent, the report showed.

“Similar to Bright Stars, we implement a program where we do baseline assessments at the beginning of the year, and again before they leave for kindergarten,” said Candy Daffern, MACAA Head Start coordinator. “All children make progress, and we see them narrow that gap in achievement.”

Despite the programs’ reported successes, accommodating all of the county’s at-risk children poses a space challenge for the division, said Debbie Collins, the division’s director of elementary education.

“We do have some challenges. I expect you would anticipate the first one, which is space,” she said. “Finding space to accommodate these children is becoming more challenging. To work with these children takes personnel costs, and so that would be our other challenge.”

With capacity constraints in mind, the division plans to bus some of Greer Elementary’s Head Start students to Broadus Wood Elementary beginning next school year.

In an effort to expand pre-K throughout the county and Charlottesville, the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area is leading an early-education task force that is exploring public-private partnerships to expand capacity.

“There are several efforts that the United Way is heading to map assets that could potentially support preschool from a variety of places across this group and the rest of the community,” said county schools Superintendent Pam Moran. “The United Way is really offering a level of leadership around pre-K that goes after a much bigger picture than we can go after alone.”

Both the Head Start and Bright Stars programs require that students apply for spots, and both have waiting lists, officials said.

The Bright Stars program began the year with a waiting list of about 55 children, McAndrew said, but that list was whittled down by the expansion at Cale.

The Head Start program has more than 40 children on its waiting list, but about a dozen of those will be kindergarten age next year, Daffern said.

School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff wondered if the program’s numbers are skewed by the application process.

“That is part of the issue, the students who come forward, the parents have to make an affirmative application,” Acuff said.

Board member Steve Koleszar praised the efforts of Head Start, Bright Stars and schools staff for collaborating on early childhood education.

“It is really nice to see how much teamwork you have and how you see yourselves as a partnership across programs,” he said. “I just really appreciate that teamwork.”