Joined by family and supporters, City Council candidate Mike Signer holds a press conference at the Jefferson School City Center.

The Charlottesville City Council candidates running in the June 9 Democratic primary all want to see the area’s youngest, and most-at-risk, students be successful.

Recently, Wes Bellamy and Mike Signer—both City Council contenders—and Kathy Galvin—a current City Councilor seeking reelection—announced in press conferences their desire to increase preschool access in the community.

“The status quo, simply put, is not good enough,” Bellamy said of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area’s growing number of preschool-aged students who are receiving little-to-no services. “At-risk children in Charlottesville are going through life handicapped from the start, and their only fault is that they had the misfortune of being born with less than the rest of us.”

Galvin echoed that sentiment.

“We know that preparing three- and four-year-olds for a strong start in kindergarten, including reading readiness, requires a preschool education,” Galvin said, noting that expanding pre-k access will help single mothers avoid steep childcare costs.

Signer agreed.

“Research shows that the most powerful investments in a child’s education development occur during the earliest, pre-kindergarten years,” Signer said. “Where possible, our public school system should be equipping all students for success in these years.”

What’s more, Signer said the city should be building strong relationships with the neediest children and their families.

“For our most underprivileged students and their families, early education requires a particularly robust relationship between our social services and human resources and our public education systems,” Signer added. “I believe in strengthening and finding efficiencies within these systems for our youngest students.”

City Councilor Dede Smith, who is also running for reelection, agreed that early education was “vitally important,” but noted that Charlottesville should be looking beyond the public schools to solve the problem.

“We need to expand our view to high-quality childcare,” Smith said, citing providers like the Barrett Early Learning Center. “There are a lot of kids who are in childcare, but won’t be in formal school until kindergarten, so we need to provide training and oversight for high-quality childcare.”

One challenge to expanding pre-k services in the city schools, Smith said, is that the preschool day doesn’t align with a full work day and the schools don’t provide afterschool care for preschoolers.

Council candidate Lena Seville also supports pre-K expansion for voluntary enrollment, but said that she’d like to examine another curriculum.

“I’ve heard great things about Montessori preschool and I would want to look into that as an option,” Seville said.

The United Way – Thomas Jefferson Area estimates that about 250 4-year-olds in the city and county do not have access to pre-K education.

Charlottesville offers preschool for eligible 4-year-olds. Additionally, the division invests local dollars to run a program for 3-year-olds.

This year Charlottesville City Schools served 220 preschoolers. Of those 220, 160 were four years old, and 60 were three years old.

In addition to preschool, Galvin highlighted Charlottesville’s growing elementary school population, which increased almost 17 percent between 2011 and 2014. Clark Elementary—where Galvin spoke Wednesday—saw a 28 percent increase in those years.

To address capacity issues the elementary schools will soon face, Galvin suggested projecting future capital costs and revisiting reconfiguration—a plan that 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.

Signer’s five-point plan, City of Learning, also touched on the role of technology in the classroom, the role of data and testing in student learning, improving professional development opportunities for teachers and addressing long-term budget challenges.

“On City Council, I will actively support the School Board, teachers and parents in efforts to reduce excessive test taking and the overemphasis of scores on a student’s educational future,” Signer said.

Additionally, Signer said he will help teachers grow within their profession by working with the School Board to seek external funding for professional development.

While Bellamy stressed preschool education, the Albemarle High School teacher also highlighted the importance of adult education.

“Unemployment is about more than just a paycheck,” Bellamy said.

“Substance abuse, depression, self-confidence, apathy and the general feeling where you want to stop trying, that’s what unemployment means to so many,” he added, noting that he’d fully support the Charlottesville Works initiative, as well as other workforce development programs.

“Soft-skills training, rehabilitation programs, busing and affordable childcare, that’s how we answer the call,” Bellamy said.

Smith said that workforce development begins in the classroom.

“First and foremost what we need to ensure is that our population has the skills to graduate with full literacy and full numeracy…so that they have the skills to compete,” Smith said. “A lot of this is about competition, and I think that’s where we’re falling short, because right now graduation from high school doesn’t necessarily mean that [they have the skills].”

Moving forward, Bellamy said the road to addressing these issues will be tough but worthwhile.

“I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that this is going to be easy,” Bellamy said, “but nothing worth doing ever is.”

The five Democratic candidates are running for three seats on Charlottesville City Council. The Charlottesville Democratic primary election is June 9 and the general election is in November.