Students enrolled in Bright Stars, Albemarle County's preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds Credit: Credit: Albemarle Department of Social Services

Kelly Shifflett tears up when she talks about turning needy families away from Bright Stars, Albemarle County’s preschool program for at-risk youth.

And in recent years, the number of those calls the Bright Stars Program Coordinator has had to make has only increased, rising from 79 children on the waitlist to 86 in the last 3 years.

“For the families, it’s hard for them to understand why they aren’t accepted,” Shifflett says. “These parents understand how valuable an early-childhood education is…and it’s hard to tell these parents who get it that we don’t have room for the child.”

Local experts say children missing out on pre-kindergarten programs will be less prepared for school and future employment, thus requiring greater investment from the community in the future.

Business leaders and social service agencies now say that new investments are sorely needed and that Albemarle’s pre-k future is at a critical juncture.

In Albemarle, Social Services Director Kathy Ralston sees how the early childhood development that occurs in quality pre-k programs boosts the development of a strong economy.

“It’s an investment in our youth and the future supply chain for employers,” Ralston said. “If a business is considering Albemarle and they see strong schools and strong pre-k, they will see that they can stick it out here.”

Tim Hulbert, President and Chief Executive of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, said investments made in pre-k opportunities benefit employers.

“Number one is the children and their families,” Hulbert said. “But from a business perspective, the most complicating factors in employee distraction, absenteeism, those kinds of things, are family considerations.”

“Also, 90 percent of our brain is developed by age 5, but our society generally believes that education starts in kindergarten at age 5,” Hulbert adds. “So we’re spending our money…in working on the last 10 percent of a human being’s brain.”

Age 5 is also the general dividing line between the local government budget and the School Board budget. Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors budget for social services and pre-k while the School Board handles K-12.

One positive sign is the collaboration of local government staff to find solutions.

Recently, officials from the County’s Department of Social Services and Albemarle Public Schools jointly proposed a potential solution that could see those children served as early as August 2014. But the plan, which carries a $1.8 million price tag, would require significant investment, and comes at a time when space in the schools is at a premium.

Bright Stars provides comprehensive social services for preschoolers and their families until the child completes 5th grade. 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.

Last year, the program served 155 4-year-olds at 8 elementary schools. The proposal would expand the program to about 120 children in the Broaddus-Wood, Baker-Butler, and Hollymead school districts.

While the proposed budget almost hits the $2 million mark, it’s pitched as a public-private partnership and proposes the following contributions: $75,000 from the United Way; $225,000 from Smart Beginnings, an offshoot of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation; $300,000 from the Board of Supervisors; and $200,000 from the schools.

For a source of revenue, 4-year-olds who are not in need, but whose families can pay market rates, would also be eligible for an additional 30 seats, equaling $270,000 per year.

As proposed, 25 new staff, including a director, 8 teachers, and 8 family coordinators, would run $1.5 million. Furniture, learning tools, and playground equipment would cost a one-time $145,960, according to the plan.

This proposal is the result of a report to the Board of Supervisors and continued conversations, in which the Board tasked Ralston with offering an avenue to reduce the waiting list numbers.

After the proposal’s distribution at the July 25th joint Board of Supervisors and School Board meeting, however, County and Schools officials maintain that this is a start to the conversation, and say that there could be many solutions to the problem.

“To be overly focused on the single paper right now, would be to miss the point,” Assistant Director of Social Services John Freeman says. “We know we have a great program [in Bright Stars], and we know we have more kids who can be served.”

“The concept paper is one methodology, not the only one,” Freeman adds. “Now the idea is to engage in a conversation about how we might do it.”

Regardless of the solution, the schools face monetary and physical obstacles with a Bright Stars expansion.

In addition to the new staffing costs, the plan includes renting a 12-15,000 square foot facility, an option, says School Board Chair Steve Koleszar, which is both expensive and less-than-ideal.

“I’m very adamant that those classrooms need to be in those elementary schools that those kids are going to go to,” Koleszar says, noting that doing so will aid in transportation, a service the schools provide for existing Bright Stars students.

But Koleszar also points to community-building.

“Transitions are always difficult, so it eliminates that transition from one space to a new space,” Koleszar says, “and it gets the parents to know the principal and the school. Plus, when you have [the child] in the school, you have the advantage of the music teachers, the speech pathologist, all of those extra resources are there.”

Even with the School Board’s best intentions, the amount of space needed to accommodate the additional students in their home schools isn’t there.

“Somewhere down the line if there’s a Capital Improvement Plan project to add on to schools, we’d have that option,” Freeman says “but right now we don’t have that.”


Despite a needy family’s best efforts, Shifflett says, pre-k opportunities are hard to come by. But what’s more is the strain that lack of opportunities places on the family, and how that strain affects the children, parents, and community.

“From a social services standpoint,” Shifflett says, “there are parents who can’t work or change hours to work more until their child is in a full-day school program.”

“They don’t have options,” Shifflett adds. “If they could afford to go to a private pre-k program or daycare they wouldn’t be on the phone with me.”

At a Smart Beginnings Leader Institute meeting in Charlottesville last month, Joan Blough, Senior Vice President of Great Start Strategy and Evaluation in Lansing, Michigan, linked strong pre-k to global competitiveness.

The achievement gap appears as early as kindergarten, Blough says, and remains relatively unchanged throughout a child’s K-12 education.

“So we miss an opportunity that we can’t repeat later, because remediation doesn’t have the same power as actually developing the neurons and biological systems of the child from the very beginning,” Blough says.

“If we expect to participate in a global economy, we have a responsibility to ensure that every single child born in this county has the best possible start,” Blough adds.

Like most of the staff and elected officials in both the County’s government and schools, Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker knows the benefits of early childhood education, but he also knows they come with a cost.

“Everyone seems to recognize that one of the best ways to prevent segments of the population from falling behind in school early, which creates situations which become hard to make up later, is to provide early childhood education opportunities,” Rooker says.

“But it’s over a penny on the real estate tax rate, so funding initiatives like that are certainly going to depend on how the revenues for the County look for the coming year,” Rooker adds.

But the tough economic times aren’t discouraging the community from finding solutions. In addition to the public-private partnership proposal, the City, County, and the United Way Thomas Jefferson Area have been rethinking how the programs are funded to begin with.

“We’ve met with the City and County, and had a state-wide conference call to talk about the constraints of the current Virginia Preschool Initiative model,” United Way Director of Community Initiatives Barbara Hutchinson says. “And subsequently the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation is taking a look at how we might come together and how we might initiate that change on the state level.”

The VPI is the Virginia Department of Education’s mechanism for delivering money to school- and community-based pre-k programs for at-risk 4-year-olds who are unserved by Head Start. The issue, Hutchinson says, is that monies are distributed to localities, and that those monies may only be used in the locality to which they are given.

Hutchinson’s team, however, would like to see Charlottesville-Albemarle serve more children by either sharing funding from the state or by sharing seats across localities.

“Right now there’s a movement afoot to look at this from the state perspective to make collaboration available,” Hutchinson says. “There are times when Charlottesville doesn’t use all of its slots and Albemarle needs slots, but right now the state doesn’t allow that.”

But Hutchinson is aware of the idea’s difficulties, noting that convincing the General Assembly to change an established system poses a considerable challenge.


Currently, a team of government and schools staff are meeting to discuss the proposal and alternative options for an expansion of Bright Stars. As the County enters budget season this fall, Koleszar says, County Executive Tom Foley will evaluate Albemarle’s financial situation and make a determination based upon his understanding of the Board of Supervisors’ priorities.

Kelly Shifflett is cautiously optimistic as the tough decisions approach.

“The School Board knows we’re doing good work and that there’s a need,” Shifflett says, “but we’re all working under a budget and tough decisions have to be made.”

“We know that this program is how families will get out of poverty,” Shifflett adds. “We can set children up to be successful in school, so they can be successful in life going on.”