County preschool program sees growth, improved outcomes
Albemarle County’s Bright Stars preschool program served a record number of students and saw improvements in the academic performance of its graduates last year, according to a report presented to the Board of Supervisors earlier this week.
Bright Stars served 186 at-risk 4-year-olds in fiscal year 2015-16, 23 more than the previous year. The program made room for the additional students by opening a new classroom at Cale Elementary School and expanding class sizes by one student in the county’s 10 existing Bright Stars classrooms.
Bright Stars family coordinators also provided services to parents, helping them learn English, obtain driver’s licenses and make positive lifestyle choices for themselves and their children.
“We firmly believe that if we can provide a positive experience for parents … it increases the likelihood that the parent will have a close relationship with their child’s school going forward,” said Bright Stars coordinator Ann McAndrew.
Ninety-five percent of parents surveyed said their child benefited from the program, and 100 percent said they would recommend Bright Stars to other families.
Bright Stars enrolls about half of the county’s at-risk 4-year-olds, but the program is only available to families districted for eight of the county’s elementary schools. “We don’t have a firm sense of children in need outside of those school catchment areas,” McAndrew said.
Last year, Bright Stars won a $100,000 grant from the state’s Virginia Preschool Initiative to send 13 more 4-year-olds to private preschools in the county. However, McAndrew said in an interview that the program did not receive the funding until the second semester of the 2015-16 school year and had to return $35,592 that was unspent when the fiscal year ended on June 30.
“Last year’s program was a prototype,” said McAndrew. “It helped us to work through some of the wrinkles of … bringing together funding from various sources.”
The program’s report for 2016 showed a reversal of an unexplained trend of poor fifth-grade reading test performance for graduates of the program. Sixty-three percent of Bright Stars graduates in fifth grade were reading at or above grade level last year, consistent with the performance of graduates in other grades.
In 2015, 34 percent of Bright Stars graduates in fifth grade were reading at or above grade level, compared with 64 percent of graduates in fourth grade. A similar drop-off for fifth-graders was also seen in 2014.
For several years, Bright Stars has enrolled increasing numbers of students with limited English proficiency. The portion of such Bright Stars students rose from 32.5 percent to 43 percent last year, twice the rate of growth between the previous two years.
Forty-one percent of last year’s Bright Stars students were Hispanic or Latino, compared with 13.9 percent of students in the county’s elementaries overall. “Our population continues to be more linguistically and ethnically diverse than the overall student body of Albemarle County,” McAndrew told supervisors.
Supervisor Norman Dill asked McAndrew if Bright Stars had considered whether President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies could change the demographics of students enrolled in the program.
“There are a lot of unknowns about that,” McAndrew said.
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek recalled a meeting last year at which Bright Stars alumni in high school spoke about their post-graduation plans.
“I’ve never forgotten that day,” Mallek said. “It was a really important lesson for us about how [the students] have benefited.”
Bright Stars students have consistently displayed dramatic improvement in literacy and math skills over the course of the one-year program. While just 9 percent of students passed the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening test in the fall of last year, 63 percent passed in the spring. Students meeting math benchmarks for pre-kindergarten rose from 17 percent to 74 percent.
However, Bright Stars’ PALS test performance has steadily declined from an 81 percent pass rate in 2012. McAndrew said she was unsure if this decline was attributable to the increase in students with limited English proficiency or changes that have been made to the PALS test. “We are paying attention to it,” she said.
Families with children who will be 3 or 4 by Sept. 30 can fill out a joint application for Charlottesville City Schools’ preschool program, the Monticello Area Community Action Agency’s Head Start program or Albemarle’s Bright Stars program. Applications can be downloaded from the websites of city and county elementary schools or picked up at those schools or at MACAA.
The deadline for priority consideration is March 1. Families who need assistance completing the application should contact their neighborhood elementary school or MACAA.