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With new financial investments and leadership from an energetic early education task force, some economically disadvantaged families in the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County will find it a little easier to place their children in a pre-K classroom next year.
Representatives from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation came to Charlottesville on Thursday to announce a new $170,000 grant for continued support of the Smart Beginnings program over the next three years.
“This grant will support and build on …the substantial work and progress to date in preparing young children for success in the region,” said foundation chairman Reginald Jones. “Together we create a strong foundation for our young children, one that will foster an educated work force that is well-qualified for the 21st century.”
The foundation is a public-private partnership for the state’s early childhood efforts. The United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area will receive the grant for its administration of the local Smart Beginnings program, one of almost 20 the foundation supports across the state.
The grant is but one initiative local officials say will help address the pre-K education needs for about 250 at-risk 4-year-olds in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area.
The Charlottesville-Albemarle Early Education Task Force formed after a summit of community leaders was held in April. The next month, Albemarle County announced it would expand its Bright Stars pre-K program offered in the public schools.
County officials say 27 additional pre-K seats were created to start the 2015-16 school year using a combination of resources from both Bright Stars and the Head Start program. The Bright Stars program has had a waiting list as high as 90 in recent years.
The task force’s chairman says it’s a good first step towards the goal of serving 250 additional children. However, even the exact need has been difficult to pin down.
“There are many children that aren’t identified on any of the waiting lists,” said Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way. “We are talking about finding people who maybe aren’t applying anymore because they have been on a waiting list for so long, or some that may not even know that there are options.
“It is important to celebrate that there have been programs that are expanding and doing more,” Viccellio added, “but when you think about a gap of 250 children, it’s more than what any one program can do.”
As the task force has met over the past six months, local government officials in the city and county agreed to work together to apply for additional support from the state-funded Virginia Preschool Initiative.
In a fast-track application process, both localities plan to submit grant requests for between $50,000 and $75,000 each by Dec. 19.
“The idea is to get funding in January or February to put additional children in seats this school year with money that would run out in June,” said assistant county executive Doug Walker. “It’s money that is leftover from other localities that didn’t take advantage of VPI funding and so they are making it available on a competitive basis.”
Both city and county school systems are facing capacity challenges that will hamper the growth of their in-house pre-K programs. As a result, the task force also has pushed for public-private partnerships.
“The VPI funding would help with the cost of placing eligible children in private daycare and provide some funds for teacher training,” Walker added.
Viccellio said the United Way also has received a $100,000 gift from a local anonymous donor to help with the nonprofit’s private child care scholarships. She cited that as another example of the creative partnerships being put in place.
The United Way also will work with local nonprofit ReadyKids, another task force member, to ensure the highest quality private programs are utilized.
“They are providing a lot of the training and mentoring to build the quality in the private settings,” said Viccellio. “We are hoping to use this opportunity as a demonstration project that will inform our broader goal of supporting all at-risk kids that need a placement.”