This week’s Symposium on High-Quality Preschool offered professional development opportunities and motivational words in support of expanding preschool access to all children in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said federal and state lawmakers must invest in universal preschool to give their most vulnerable constituents a better chance to succeed in life.
“If they don’t give attention to them, then they are risking every business in this country, every innovation in this country,” Atkins said in a joint address with Albemarle County schools Superintendent Pam Moran. “They are really risking this country overall.”
“We’re not just talking about babysitting,” Atkins added. “We are talking about national security and the future of this country when we talk about 3-year-olds and universal preschool.”
About 130 people attended Wednesday’s third annual symposium at the Jefferson School City Center, including preschool teachers, social services providers, elected officials and other members of the community.
The symposium was organized by the Early Education Task Force of Charlottesville-Albemarle, which was convened by the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area in 2015. Its 15 members include representatives from the city and county governments and school divisions, as well as nonprofit organizations.
Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way-TJA and chairwoman of the Early Education Task Force, moderated a discussion of the current state of preschool education in Charlottesville and Albemarle County in one breakout session.
The task force aims for at least 90 percent of the area’s at-risk 4-year-olds to be enrolled in high-quality preschool programs. A fiscal map study commissioned by the task force in 2016 estimated that 75 percent were enrolled, with most of the unserved population residing in Albemarle.
Viccellio said most of the area’s preschool programs no longer had waiting lists, thanks in part to Virginia Preschool Initiative grants that have sponsored enrollment at private preschools.
“Believe it or not, we don’t have an excess of children to place,” she said.
Viccellio said there also was a great need in the area for childcare assistance and home visits to promote the healthy development of even younger children.
“If you look at brain development and public investment, the charts don’t line up like they should,” Viccellio said. “Community interest and momentum in this space are growing, and I think we have a real opportunity to bring what is happening for [4-year-olds] to ages 0 through 5.”
Viccellio said the task force is looking beyond the “very obvious” challenge of helping families find preschool options for their children to “building the infrastructure of the community to deliver the high-quality services.”
“It really has to be a high-quality preschool experience to move the needle for those kids,” said Jan Dorman, director of finance at the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.
Diantha McKeel, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, said she has lobbied for greater involvement from the University of Virginia in local educational initiatives in discussions with members of UVa’s presidential search committee.
“UVa should be seeking out more opportunities for outreach and engagement, especially in early childhood education,” McKeel said. “That message has to be sent from the president’s office.”
Viccellio said Albemarle and Charlottesville had demonstrated exceptional collaboration and investment to support preschool expansion.
“It really is essential that we think of this as a community effort and not a locality effort,” she said. “There is crossover and there is overlap. When you think about the emphasis on quality, it really makes sense that we are doing this together.”
Barbara Hutchinson, United Way-TJA’s vice president for community impact, spoke about the Outcome Collaborative, a data reporting system that tracks at-risk children in local preschool programs from early childhood through high school.
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The Outcome Collaborative only tracks students with the consent of their parents or legal guardians. Hutchinson said student data is stripped of all personally identifiable information and stored on encrypted computers.
Hutchinson said the Outcome Collaborative will enable education leaders and policymakers to assess which services have the greatest impact on at-risk children. However, she said this research could not be made public without the consent of each partner agency.
“We want this to be a strengths-based project,” Hutchinson said. “Our desire is not to punish programs for participating, but to support and strengthen them.”
Bridget Hamre, a research associate professor at UVa’s Curry School of Education, gave a keynote address that explained how heightened expectations for kindergarten readiness in the United States were positively affecting preschool education.
A recent UVa study found that a large majority of kindergarten teachers in 2010 believed that children should know the alphabet before starting kindergarten, and that kindergartners should learn how to read. In 1998, only about a third of teachers surveyed held these beliefs.
“There are people who cheer this as great success, because we have learned a lot about what young people are actually capable of learning,” Hamre said.
However, Hamre said increasing academic rigor of preschool can limit opportunities for children to develop social skills and self-regulation. She cited research suggesting that people who do not develop these skills at an early age are less likely to graduate from college and more likely to receive a criminal conviction by their early 30s.
“These aren’t small effects — they are really notable effects,” she said. “We can’t just focus on math and literacy in ways ... that aren’t necessarily supporting these skills in the ways that we want them to.”
Hamre showed videos that demonstrated how a variety of instructional methods could be used to help children learn academic concepts while supporting their personal growth.
“If we have one outcome in mind, there are multiple ways to get to that outcome,” she said. “It’s easy sometimes, in the world that we live in, to think that there is one right path. But the developmental science tells us that this is not true.”