Preschool Students at Greenbrier Elementary Credit: Charlottesville City Schools

While Albemarle County grapples with the ownership of a preschool program for at-risk youth, Charlottesville City Schools is taking a different approach.

In a school division where over half of the students receive free or reduced lunch, not only do the City schools fully administer their own program for four-year-olds, the division also invests over $1 million per year to serve three-year-old students.

“We know, and we’ve seen the numbers, that the sooner we can get them, the bigger the impact that we can have,” said Charlottesville School Board Chair Juandiego Wade.

Like Albemarle’s Bright Stars program, Charlottesville’s preschool classes focus on providing a high-quality experience for the City’s children who are most at-risk of arriving for kindergarten unprepared. Last year, almost all the students participating in the City’s Pre-K program qualified for free and reduced lunch and the majority come from single-parent homes.

“We know that socioeconomic status is a big indicator,” said Diane Behrens, Charlottesville’s preschool coordinator. “But we also know that if parents haven’t graduated from school…if they have parents who are incarcerated, parents with drug abuse problems, we try to identify and work with children as young as we can.”

And the early intervention works.

In the fall of 2012, three-year-olds averaged a 48 percent on the Brigance Test, which assesses basic skills such as color and number recognition, motor skills and a child’s ability to repeat sentences. By the end of the school year that number jumped to 86 percent.

In the fall of the same year, 45 percent of four-year-olds fell within the expected developmental range on the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, which tests basic literacy skills. By the spring, 91 percent of four-year-olds fell within range.

“That’s a pretty good indicator that the key experiences that we’re providing for them are working,” Behrens said.

Supporting Children and Families

Charlottesville’s preschool classrooms don’t come without their challenges. English is a second language for 52 percent of three-year-olds and 27 percent of four-year-olds.

“Our children enter preschool having such different life experiences,” Behrens said. “One of our challenges is that we need to make sure that we provide activities that provide a solid foundation for every student.”

To do this, teachers receive their rosters in the summer months and meet with families in order to plan activities that are appropriate to each child.

Another issue the program faces is the caseload family support workers must handle.

Like Bright Stars in Albemarle, Charlottesville’s preschool program provides family support workers who aid students, teachers and families. However, for the 220 students the schools plan to serve, there are only two family support workers who focus on the preschoolers and the transition into kindergarten.

In Bright Stars, there are eight family coordinators for 10 classrooms that vary in size from 12-17, and the family support workers provide services until the child completes 5th grade.

“It’s a huge caseload, but somehow they manage to do it,” Behrens said. “One of our family support workers has been in the division for 20-plus years and she just knows families.”

Much of the family support workers’ time is focused on problem solving and developing relationships between teachers and families.

One of the family support workers is funded jointly by the Department of Social Services. Behrens said that worker often provides more of the comprehensive social services.

“The goal is to reduce whatever is interfering with that child’s ability to get a strong foundation,” Behrens said. “If a parent is having difficulty with behavior management at home, and we know that is going to transfer to a school setting, then the family support worker might work with the parent on some parenting skills.

“It’s whatever helps [parents] become comfortable and work through issues that would keep them from supporting their child in their learning,” Behrens added.

Some families opt out of Pre-K entirely.

During a March meeting between Charlottesville City Council and the School Board, Councilor Kristin Szakos noted that some working parents have told her they don’t enroll their eligible children because the program doesn’t offer aftercare. 

To work with the nearly 25 percent of students who will enter kindergarten with no preschool, the schools are currently running a three-week Jump Start program aimed at readying students for school. These children are learning to ride the school bus, and are attending their home classrooms each day to learn basic skills.


Last year, Charlottesville served 144 students in its four-year-old program. Eighty of those students—or five classrooms—were funded in part by the state through the Virginia Preschool Initiative, which covers half of the cost of a year of preschool but requires localities to provide a match.

In Charlottesville’s case, the division has to put up $3,000 for each eligible student in order to draw down the state’s $3,000 contribution.

The remaining 64 students—or four classrooms—were funded through the federal Title I program, which does not require a local match.

The five three-year-old classes are all funded locally.

This year, however, the division has applied for VPI funding for all 10 four-year-old classes, or 160 students. This means that in one year the total number of Charlottesville students served by VPI will double.

“What was happening was that Title I funds kept getting cut, and so we were picking up costs that we wanted to maintain in school like reading specialists and math specialists,” Behrens said. “If we were going to have to do that with local dollars anyway, why not leverage what the state was offering us for preschool students?”

The Virginia Preschool Initiative reports that Charlottesville is eligible for 196 slots, but right now the division only has the matching funds to utilize 160 slots.  While there is no waiting list for Pre-K in the city, should additional students seek services Charlottesville would have to find additional matching dollars and classroom space.

The schools also offer three special education inclusion classes and four special education-only classes, but these classes are funded through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

A Vision for the Future

While the schools haven’t laid out a plan for preschool expansion in the immediate future, any program growth will depend on the division’s plan for grade reconfiguration.

The long-discussed plan would return 5th graders to their home elementary schools, house grades 6 through 8 at Buford Middle School and transform Walker Upper Elementary School into a preschool center.

Grade reconfiguration would also require renovations at Buford, Walker, and the elementary schools, School Board Chair Wade said.

The reorganization of students, however, will not come without significant new investments. In the meantime, the schools have focused on other improvements such as the new STEM labs at Buford.

“It’s a massive amount of money and we understand that,” Wade said. “What’s happening now is when we do reconfiguration, these [other upgrades] will already be done and we wouldn’t have to go back and re-do them.”

During the March meeting, City Councilor Kathleen M. Galvin supported expanding the preschool program, but said doing so should occur in consultation with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on sustainable school funding.

“I think we definitely need a more sustainable, predictable funding stream for that sort of an initiative,” Galvin said. “I don’t think we’re prepared to do that right now though.”

Ed Gillaspie, finance director for Charlottesville City Schools, said during the March meeting that the cost of one new preschool class is about $100,000, which would pay for one teacher and one instructional assistant. An additional, one-time $25,000 would be needed to furnish the room as well.

Currently, Wade said, Charlottesville City Schools is focused on maintaining the classrooms it has.

“Our top priority now is the families that are most at-risk. As soon as we get to them, it will be better all the way around,” Wade said. “City Council gets that too, and that’s why they have supported the programs in the past.”

Moving forward, school officials say further expansion of Pre-K will take leadership and strategic planning.

“We can have the conversation [about a vision], but we really haven’t as a board talked about it to say what it is we want definitively,” Wade said. “But we do want quality childcare for all the students.”

Early Childhood Idea Lab

In the course of researching early childhood education, Charlottesville Tomorrow has discovered a number of ideas on the minds of local experts for how pre-K could be improved. 

Have an idea of your own?  Please share it with a comment below.

Investor financing

Some states and localities are using “social impact bonds” to raise funds to invest in early childhood programs. If students are better prepared for school, there are less costs incurred for remedial services. Investors receive a “pay for success” return on their investment and long-term savings are generated for taxpayers.

Creative budgeting and supervision

Some localities in Virginia “braid” all their pre-K funding sources together (Federal, state & local). Doing so allows localities to more efficiently allocate resources and maximize enrollment, as opposed to running separate piecemeal programs that can be harder to evaluate.

City-County collaboration

Charlottesville-Albemarle has joint facilities for career & technical education and special education, is there an opportunity to work better together on pre-K for our at-risk 4-year-olds?

Schools administer pre-K

Since pre-K is an educational program, the schools could take full ownership of pre-K and plan accordingly (for facilities, teachers and family support workers). This approach would take support from the appropriating bodies (i.e., City Council; Board of Supervisors). In Albemarle, local government, not the school division, has responsibility for pre-K.

Public-private partnerships

Some communities seek public-private partnerships to utilize private school seats, and fund those placements through local government budgets, grants and private donations.