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For the first time in years, Albemarle County Public Schools can’t fill its no-cost preschool program

Around this time of year, families are usually placed onto a waiting list to get their children enrolled in Albemarle County’s free Bright Stars preschool program. 

Now, the county is rushing to fill nearly 40 open spots. 

“We expected numbers to be down during COVID,” said Albemarle County Public School’s Lead Coach for Early Education Lisa Molinaro. “We figured when schools opened up, we’d see them immediately shoot back up. But right now, that’s not what we’re seeing.”

Bright Stars — a government-funded, comprehensive preschool program — reserves 208 seats for students each year. As of Tuesday, the school system has enrolled 171 kids. 

Part of the reason could be that the school division changed how it accepts applications. Before, families submitted paper applications to a participating elementary school and awaited word from a coordinator from the Albemarle County’s Department of Social Services. 

The process now has more steps. The application is fully online, and is coordinated by the United Way of Greater Charlottesville. The nonprofit organization collects and reviews the applications and then forwards them to ACPS. Families are contacted by United Way, rather than the school system, in the next steps of their applications.

Albemarle schools switched to this method of application to give families the ability to apply for more than one school or pre-kindergarten program at a time. The United Way’s application allows families to be considered for Charlottesville City preschools, the Monticello Area Community Action Agency, Head Start program and other private, public and or subsidized preschools in Charlottesville, Albemarle County and other nearby localities.

“As we’re kicking this off, and it’s still new, we’re seeing some kinks that we need to work out,” said Molinaro.

Molinaro said the changes in how the applications are handled may be causing confusion.

Applications are taken on a rolling basis until all spots are filled, said Molinaro. Families may hear back as soon as two days after they submit their applications. 

To qualify for the program, parents fill out a 32-question survey. The survey asks about the family’s education history, where they currently reside, if their child was born prematurely, if their family served in the military, among other questions, and each answer is given a point score.

The more points a family has, the higher chance they have to secure a seat at no cost. Families who don’t rank high within the point system can still be qualified for other free preschools within the area, said Molinaro.

The more points a family has, the higher chance it has to secure a seat at no cost. Families who are within 200% of the poverty line (which for a family of four would be less than $55,000 a year) are immediately qualified for free pre-school.

“At the bare minimum, all of the families will have support in finding a preschool that meets their families needs,” said Molinaro. 

The shift in the application method will better serve the families as it will expand access to a number of local preschools, said Anna Shapiro, research scientist at the University of Virginia’s EdPolicy Works. But in order to be successful, she said, the outreach must be intentional. 

“Having it online is one way to potentially increase access, but then there needs to be a lot of community outreach,” said Shapiro. “Making sure that families from all backgrounds are getting things sent to their doors, they’re seeing it at bus stops, they’re seeing it in the grocery store and places they shop.”

Ensuring that there is a human available to guide families through the application is also important, Shapiro said. 

The county school system encourages families with four year olds or children who will be four by Sept. 30 to apply if they have not done so already. Applications are also considered on a rolling basis until all seats are filled.

Families interested in applying for pre-kindergarten online can apply at go2grow.com. The application is used to determine eligibility for Monticello Area Community Action Agency, Bright Stars, United Way, Charlottesville City Public Preschool and other private centers. Once the application is submitted, parents can choose any program for which they qualify.