Bright Stars students Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Department of Social Services

The Charlottesville area’s largest public preschool programs still have room for more children a week into the new school year.

Sheila Sparks, coordinator of preschool and family support for Charlottesville City Schools, said the city’s preschool program for 4-year-olds has about 160 children registered for this fall. The program enrolled about 180 students last year.

“We definitely could use more children,” Sparks said. “We have placed everybody that we possibly can, that we know about.”

Sparks said this year’s lower numbers could be an anomaly resulting from a handful of families moving away from Charlottesville. She also speculated that recent executive orders by President Donald Trump could have limited the number of refugees arriving in Charlottesville and sending children to preschool this year.

Sparks said Charlottesville’s program for three-year olds is at its full enrollment of 60 students. She said the city schools would offer to take in 4-year-olds waitlisted at other preschool programs, like Head Start, as the year continues.

“At the end of the day, [our local preschool programs] all have the same goal,” Sparks said. “We are all working together to make sure all children in the city are enrolled somewhere.”

The Monticello Area Community Action Agency’s Head Start preschool program also has not reached full enrollment this year in Charlottesville or Albemarle County.

“It’s a good problem to have, in the sense that we are reaching a tremendously high percentage of the families with 4-year-olds who are interested,” said MACAA executive director Harriet Kaplan. “Some families are not convinced of the value of preschool for their children. It is challenging to get the word out to them.”

MACAA’s Head Start program has enrolled 37 three and 4-year-olds in Charlottesville this year, and about 80 in Albemarle. Kaplan said Head Start has the capacity to serve up to 50 children in the city and 110 in the county.

Kaplan said a shortage of 4-year-olds could affect Head Start’s staffing ratios and overall enrollment. If a Head Start classroom with two teachers hosts mostly children under age 4, its enrollment is capped at 17 instead of the usual 20.

“In order to meet the maximum number of children for whom we are funded by the federal government… we need to have 20 children in each of our classrooms,” Kaplan said.

“In recent years… [local preschool programs] have sort of been chasing the same 4-year-olds,” Kaplan said. “There may not be that many more out there.”
A report commissioned by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Early Education Task Force in 2016 estimated that Albemarle County served 70 percent of eligible 4-year-olds, while Charlottesville served 90 percent. It estimated that 138 4-year-olds in the area were still in need of preschool access that year.

The Task Force has helped eliminate waiting lists for Albemarle County’s preschool program, Bright Stars, by overseeing a mixed-delivery program that places students at private preschools.
In August 2016, the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area was awarded a $250,000 Mixed Delivery Grant from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation in consultation with the Virginia Department of Education. Earlier that year, the city and county used $180,000 in grants from the Virginia Preschool Initiative to place 25 4-year-olds in private preschool programs.
Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way-TJA and chairwoman of the Early Education Task Force, said the number of applications to the Charlottesville/Albemarle Preschool Network this year was lower than expected.
“We were surprised by how hard it was to find the 4-year-olds for the mixed delivery program this year,” Viccellio said. “We are doing our best to reach all families with children who could participate.”
Albemarle’s Bright Stars program is starting this school year at full enrollment, with 178 students in 10 classrooms. Program coordinator Ann McAndrew said Greer Elementary had the largest unmet demand for Bright Stars this year; about 20 children were waitlisted for Greer’s classroom and were placed at other preschools.
McAndrew said she was preparing to submit a proposal for the county to allow Bright Stars to use a classroom in the addition to Woodbrook Elementary School, which is scheduled to be completed next summer.
“With one more classroom, we will get very close to seating all the children that the state has determined we have a need for,” McAndrew said.
The expansion of Woodbrook and subsequent redistricting is expected to result in a net gain of three classrooms for preschool programs. In addition to Bright Stars, McAndrew said Head Start or the county’s Early Childhood Special Education Services would be considered for these classrooms.
Viccellio said it was encouraging to see that local preschool programs were not having to turn children away this year, as they had in the past.  
“We are looking at the implications of this for all the area’s preschool programs,” Viccellio said. “We still want everyone to have access to preschool, but it is not as simple as making sure that there is a seat for everybody. Now we are examining it more through the lens of how we can elevate the quality of preschool in our community, across the board.”

Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.