Investing in the future: Albemarle weighs pre-k expansion
Kelly Shifflett tears up when she talks about turning needy families away from Bright Stars, Albemarle County’s preschool program for at-risk youth.
And in recent years, the number of those calls the Bright Stars Program Coordinator has had to make has only increased, rising from 79 children on the waitlist to 86 in the last three years.
“For the families, it’s hard for them to understand why they aren’t accepted,” Shifflett says. “It’s hard to tell these parents who get it that we don’t have room for the child.”
Now, business leaders and social service agencies are saying that new investments of almost $2 million are sorely needed and that Albemarle’s pre-k future is at a critical juncture.
Bright Stars provides comprehensive social services for preschoolers and their families through 5th grade. In addition to the preschool program, Bright Stars provides family coordinators who address a family’s employment and financial issues. They also involve family members in the school community and teach parents how to support their child’s learning.
In Albemarle, Social Services Director Kathy Ralston and Tim Hulbert, president and chief executive of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, see an expansion as an economic development issue and a way for businesses to invest in their employees.
“It’s an investment in our youth and the future supply chain for employers,” Ralston says. “If a business is considering Albemarle and they see strong schools and strong pre-k, they will see that they can stick it out here.”
Joan Blough runs a program similar to Bright Stars in Lansing, Michigan. She spoke at an early childhood conference in Charlottesville last month and notes that critical brain development occurs in the first five years of a child’s life and can have long term impacts on the achievement gap.
“So we miss an opportunity that we can’t repeat later, because remediation doesn’t have the same power as actually developing the neurons and biological systems of the child from the very beginning,” Blough says.
Age 5 is also the dividing line between the local government budget and the School Board budget. Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors budget for social services and pre-k, while the School Board handles K-12.
One positive sign is the collaboration of government and schools staff to find solutions.
Recently, officials from both sides of local government jointly proposed a potential solution that could see an additional 120 children served in the Broaddus-Wood, Baker-Butler, and Hollymead school districts.
But the plan, which carries a $1.8 million price tag, would require significant investment, and comes at a time when space in the schools is at a premium.
After the proposal’s distribution at the July 25 joint Board of Supervisors and School Board meeting, however, officials maintain that this is just a start to the conversation, and say that there could be many solutions to the problem.
An additional problem an expansion poses to the schools is space. Bright Stars programs are currently housed in a student’s home school, which allows the child and his or her family to establish a relationship with the school.
But as some county schools approach overcrowding, the proposal suggests establishing a central Bright Stars facility— an option School Board Chair Steve Koleszar does not support, noting it would hinder those early relationships and complicate the division’s transportation planning.
Like many in local government, Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker recognizes the importance of pre-k opportunities, but he also notes an expansion would require cuts from elsewhere or a greater than one cent increase on the county tax rate.
Despite the tough choices, local government and representatives from the United Way are lobbying at the state level to allow localities to be more creative with how they use state funds.
Bright Stars is funded through the Virginia Preschool Initiative, a branch of the Virginia Department of Education. The United Way’s Barbara Hutchinson says funds can only be used in the locality to which they were given.
Hutchinson’s team, however, would like to see Charlottesville-Albemarle serve more children by either sharing funding from the state or by sharing seats across localities.
Currently, a team of government and schools staff are meeting to discuss the proposal and alternative options for an expansion of Bright Stars. As the county enters budget season this fall, Koleszar says, County Executive Tom Foley will evaluate Albemarle’s financial situation and make a determination based upon his understanding of the Board of Supervisors’ priorities.
Kelly Shifflett is cautiously optimistic as the tough decisions approach.
“The School Board knows we’re doing good work and that there’s a need,” Shifflett says, “but we’re all working under a budget and tough decisions have to be made.”
“We know that this program is how families will get out of poverty,” Shifflett adds. “We can set children up to be successful in school, so they can be successful in life going on.”
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