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This is the first of a three-part series

As preschool initiatives become more prevalent ― such as statewide plans to create pilot programs for 3-year-old ― Charlottesville City Schools and Albemarle County Public Schools are no strangers to offering programs for preschool-age children.

But the ways those young pupils are served in each division are slightly different.

In the county schools, preschools are funded by the Virginia Preschool Initiative, a state program aimed at serving 4-year-olds, and by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors since 1995. They’re scattered across the elementary schools. The county doesn’t serve 3-year-olds.

Carol Fox, Bright Stars Program Coordinator of the Albemarle Department of Social Services, said the state allocated 190 spots for the current academic year. The number of spots normally increases by about two a year.

Albemarle is the only jurisdiction in Virginia where the 50% match for the VPI grant doesn’t come from the school division, Fox said.

“Regardless of how the budget is set, it’s always a monetary concern whether it’s a government or school division,” she said.

There’s a waiting list for the 4-year-olds, Fox said, explaining it’s not a matter of space, but the family asking for a specific school that the county may not be able to accommodate.

Because of mixed delivery ―  benefiting families qualified for childcare subsidies and VPI dollars ―  the county places some children in private facilities.

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Now that a budget has been presented, the House and the Senate will create amendments to it and make alternative proposals. The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee weigh in on those details. They have a deadline of Feb. 16 to release their proposals.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Also in the county, there’s a partnership with a private provider to provide transportation for children for aftercare from 3 to 6 p.m. The county uses VPI dollars, and the private provider pays the other half of transportation.

“We have a school bus, and we pick up any [4-year-olds] all the way to fifth-graders to four different [private] providers,” Fox said.

Charlottesville

In Charlottesville, 52% of the students are economically disadvantaged and are on free or reduced-price lunch. Nearly 83% students of color who quality for free or reduced-price lunch live in subsidized housing, the division said.

Like Albemarle, division-run preschools in the city also are scattered across the elementary schools, and mixed-delivery dollars are used to place children to private settings.

Unlike the county, the city allocates local dollars to serve 3-year-olds. City schools also plan to move away from the scattered facilities through reconfiguring Walker Upper Elementary School into a centralized preschool center.

Under the reconfiguration — which includes sending fifth grade to the elementary schools and sixth grade to an expanded or rebuilt Buford Middle School — the division’s preschool programs will be housed under one roof, allowing the division to offer wrap-around services.

The city released the request for proposal for the reconfiguration project on Dec. 18. Jan. 30 is the deadline for the firms to submit their proposals.

This year, the city serves nearly 170 4-year-olds and nearly 65 3-year-olds. The state share per child who is qualified for VPI is $3,163, Sheila Sparks, the division’s Coordinator for Preschool and Family Support, wrote in an email.

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In Charlottesville, 52% of the students are economically disadvantaged and are on free or reduced-price lunch. Nearly 83% students of color who quality for free or reduced-price lunch live in subsidized housing, the division said. Like Albemarle, division-run preschools in the city also are scattered across the elementary schools, and mixed-delivery dollars are used to place children to private settings.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

“At this time, we have less than a handful of families of 3-year-olds that we are working with to determine eligibility and school placement possibilities,” Sparks said.

“[The families] are  ‘in process,’ so I would not say they are on a ‘waitlist,'” Sparks added.

City school officials couldn’t be reached for more details whether the division offers aftercare for preschool-age children.

Mike Chinn, chairman and president of the United Way of Greater Charlottesville, said he is optimistic about the city’s centralized preschool proposal.

“Many of us are excited about that for a few reasons,” he said, adding that the center could allow the division to offer an after school program.

After school is a real challenge for families and working parents with preschool-age children, Chinn said.

What the state’s proposed budget means

Jenna Conway, Virginia’s chief readiness officer, said Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget through fiscal year 2022 includes $95 million for early education. The plan will benefit all Virginia schools with preschool programs ―  including a 10% increase in the Virginia Preschool Initiative, Conway said.

“All of the classrooms can potentially benefit from that and apply for opportunities that serve their waitlist,” Conway said.

Previously, 3-year-olds have been served through federal dollars. This is the first time the state is attempting to allocate dollars for them, as experts said the younger children are exposed to education, the better they perform in kindergarten.

Conway said 55% of students from low-income backgrounds and ⅔ of special needs children go into kindergarten without hitting the benchmarks of school readiness.

“A high-quality preschool can help prepare [children],” Conway said. “It can help narrow the achievement gap.”

The application process to get into the 3-year-old programs is competitive, she added, with state considering factors including a division’s needs and priorities.

“We’re encouraging all divisions to apply for it,” Conway said.

The item in the proposed budget for the 3-year-olds includes VPI and mixed-delivery dollars. Separately, the state plans to provide money for the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, the state’s partner in school readiness, to serve about 1,000 at-risk 4 and 3-year-olds.

“The state recommends that we start small and understand what it takes to serve 3-year-olds and which communities are ready to open classrooms,” Conway said.

Conway applauded Charlottesville City Schools for being among very few school divisions across the state for allocating money for 3-year-olds.

“If every child had an option, we’d get better results in kindergarten,” Conway said.

What’s next for the budget

Now that a budget has been presented, the House and the Senate will create amendments to it and make alternative proposals.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee weigh in on those details. They have a deadline of Feb. 16 to release their proposals.

Afterward, a committee negotiate the differences between the House and the Senate budgets and a compromised budget will be then created, passed and sent to the governor for approval.

A teacher’s perspective

In Quaneilia “Shay” Carter-Shifflett’s preschool class at Albemarle’s Woodbrook Elementary School, she works on science, technology, engineering and math lessons. She said her work impacts the achievement gap daily.

“Of course, I’m not going to see it this year,” she said. “But once they get to fourth or fifth grade, I’ll be able to see the effects of that.”

Carter-Shifflett said it’s important to move down to 3-year-olds because the earlier the division is able to serve these group of children, the more they’re set for success.

“If I could get them at 3, you can only imagine the social and emotional skills that we could get them to develop at that age,” Carter-Shifflett said.

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In Quaneilia “Shay” Carter-Shifflett’s preschool class at Albemarle’s Woodbrook Elementary School, she works on science, technology, engineering and math lessons. She said her work impacts the achievement gap daily.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow