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Charlottesville seeks 'powerful' change with early childhood center

Nearly two decades ago, all preschool classes in Charlottesville City Schools were under one roof, and that was “marvelous,” said Eursaline Inge.

“Because the teachers could walk down the hall and say, I’m struggling with this, or I need this,” said Inge, who currently works as a family support worker for preschool. “And if you were struggling with a child, you could access a colleague or just encourage each other during the day.”

That ability for staff members to collaborate and share resources is one reason Charlottesville wants to go back to a center model. The city’s roughly 200 preschoolers are spread across the six elementary schools in 20 classrooms, according to division data.

The city’s preschool program took over the Jefferson School for several years before vacating the site in 2002 and moving the classes to the neighborhood elementary schools. Since moving out, the School Board has discussed on and off again a plan to bring all the preschool students and their teachers back together again.

Now, Charlottesville is the closest it has ever been since 2002 to having all preschoolers together again after City Council voted last month to keep the so-called reconfiguration project moving forward. As part of the project’s first phase, all preschool classes would be moved to Walker Upper Elementary School. A standalone $22.3 million early childhood center would be built on the Walker campus in an eventual phase two.

The other parts of the plan include moving fifth-graders from Walker back to the elementaries and sixth-graders to Buford Middle School. Renovating and expanding Buford, which would cost an estimated $75 million, is the first phase.

In the meantime, Walker would be turned into a temporary facility until the preschool center is constructed, under the current plan. The city wants to start construction on the first phase in July 2023 and wrap it up by August 2026, meaning students not born yet would likely be part of the first preschool class at Walker.

No specific timeline has been set for the construction of the early childhood center because how it will be funded is still unclear. School board members and community members have mentioned the possibility of private funding. Officials also want to raise the sales tax rate, the revenue from which would be dedicated to school construction. If approved by the General Assembly and local voters, the city could levy a general retail sales tax at a rate of 1%, which would bring in about $12 million a year, officials have said.

City officials have said that the real estate tax rate would have to be increased by five cents in order to pay for the first phase.

Reconfiguration: By the numbersFirst Phase: $74.78 million – $73 million expansion and renovation of Buford Middle School to bring the school’s capacity from 533 to 1,050 students. 593 students currently attend Buford. – $1.35 million to turn Walker Upper Elementary into a temporary preschool facility. – $425,000 to buy furniture for fifth-grade classrooms at elementary Second Phase: $22.3 million – Building a 48,600 square-foot early childhood center with 18 classrooms and space for support services

Why a preschool center

Over the years, school division officials have pointed to greater investments in early childhood as one way to address the persistent achievement and opportunity gaps in the school division. The preschool program serves 3- to 4-year-olds from low-income households, who have a disability or are at risk of starting kindergarten behind their peers.

From 2017-21, students of color made up 84% of the preschool program’s enrollment, and 66% of students were economically disadvantaged, according to division data. In the overall school division this year, 60.4% were students of color and 45.9% were considered economically disadvantaged.

Centralizing preschool could take teaching and learning to a new level, said Sheila Sparks, the preschool coordinator for Charlottesville.

That’s because all students would have all access to the same materials and experiences and their teachers would be able to share resources and support one another.

“It really will make teaching and learning more powerful,” Sparks said. “Having everybody speaking the same language and everybody pulling in the same direction, pushing for kindergarten readiness for everybody with the same plan, I think is really important.”

The center also would provide more continuity for students, so they don’t have to change schools if their families move to another attendance zone.

Inge said she likes the idea of going back to a center in which everything in the building is focused on preschool.

“Sometimes that support for preschool is not there because everybody doesn’t get preschool,” she said.

As a family support worker for the preschool program, Inge helps families find transportation to doctor’s appointments and connects them to other resources in the community to find food or other resources. She and another support worker work with families at five of the six elementaries. Sparks takes care of Clark, Inge said.

Inge’s office is at Charlottesville High School, so she doesn’t see the families she works with every day.

“I miss a lot of that connection with parents,” she said.

With a center, she and the other support worker would work in one building where their families actually are, enabling them to better support students and their families.

“The earlier we can get children and nurture and encourage families, the better we are as a community,” she said.

More than 90% of a person’s brain develops before age 5, which makes early childhood a critical time for children. In preschool, young children learn essential skills such as working with others and controlling their own behaviors and emotions before they head to kindergarten.

“That brain development really happens through moving their bodies and exploring their environments in ways that really need to be facilitated by the design of that environment,” said Jessica Whittaker, a research associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development.

Sparks said preschool teachers are look at students’ language and communication skills as well as fine and gross motor skills in addition to reading and math.

“We look at all of those areas, and everything that we do, we try to make it engaging and disguised in play,” Sparks said.

A four-year study published in 2019 of an expanded Virginia preschool program called Virginia Preschool Initiative Plus found that two-thirds of students who participated entered kindergarten ready to learn. Additionally, those students “developed more than 15 months of mathematics skills and more than 20 months of literacy skills in a 12-month time frame” from when they started preschool to beginning kindergarten, according to the study.

According to the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program, “children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are about 1.5 times more likely to be ready for kindergarten if they attend public preschool, compared to their peers who did not attend preschool.”

The city’s preschool program is one of several options for early childhood education in the area as part of the state’s system for funding preschool.

The recent conversations about the early childhood center come as the Gov. Ralph Northam administration has taken a greater interest in expanding access to early childhood programs. At the federal level, universal preschool has emerged a key policy priority for Democrats and could be funded in the Build Back Better Act.

“We’re in the sweet spot; we’re in the eye of the storm in early childhood, so to speak,” Sparks said.

A long discussion

The prospect of having all the preschoolers at one location has been a driving force in the reconfiguration conversations, which began in earnest in 2009. Following a year of community forums and conversations about the future of school facilities, the idea emerged for a central preschool center as a way to make room for fifth-graders at the elementary level, according to board documents.

In fact, many board members who voted for the project in 2010 mentioned the early childhood center as a key reason for their vote, according to the minutes from the October meeting.

“The creation of the preschool center affords our children the opportunity to benefit from a consolidated program in a state of the art facility,” former board member Colette Blount said then. “Through collaboration with UVa and other early childhood education specialists, we have the chance to open the door to affecting early and long lasting positive work in the educational foundation of our children. … I am primarily supporting Option 4 because of the preschool center. That is where we can have a very different and long lasting impact.”

Option 4 was the reconfiguration option that’s still being considered today.

“As many of you have already said, the early childhood development center is something that I think given our proximity to UVa is a golden opportunity to really be a game changer in the early years of our children’s’ lives,” former board member Kathy Galvin said during that meeting.

A year after her vote, Galvin was elected to City Council and started her term in 2012.

The project was shelved in early 2012 because of funding concerns. But after former Councilor Wes Bellamy asked for a plan to expand early childhood programs, reconfiguration was pulled off the shelf. The School Board sought once again to make the project a reality in late 2018 following capacity concerns.

Reconfiguration Key Dates & Decisions• January 8, 2009: Efficiency study presented to School Board, calling for the closure of an elementary school. • April 20, 2009: Then schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins presents four options to the community to kick off a series of community meetings about school facilities. Those four options were: staying the same, closing an elementary school, having two middle schools, or going to sixth through eighth grade middle school. • Oct. 27, 2009: Community group narrows the options to the fourth one • Oct. 21, 2010: School Board votes to proceed with the reconfiguration plan, citing the benefits of a centralized preschool • Feb. 17, 2011: School Board votes to make Buford the middle school • November 2011: VMDO Architects estimates the project would cost $46 million • January 2012: Plan abandoned because of cost and the economic downturn • Fall 2015: Former Councilor Wes Bellamy asks for a plan to expand prekindergarten • Summer 2017: VMDO capacity study released in response to rising student enrollment • Sept. 26, 2017: School Board meets to review capacity study and reconfiguration and central preschool presented again • Dec. 19, 2018: Board decides to proceed with reconfiguration plan, estimated to cost $55 million with a range from $60 to $80 million. • Spring 2019: City Council approves $3 million for a reconfiguration design study to estimate cost • Spring 2021: City Council includes $50 million placeholder in CIP for project • Spring 2021: VMDO receives contract for the design phase • June 2021: Design meetings begin • October 2021: City Council votes to swap out the placeholder for a $75 million project, moving the project forward

Current plans call for a two-story early childhood center with 18 classrooms that would be built on the lower end of the Walker campus near Rose Hill Drive. The school’s gym would be demolished to make space for the new facility, which would be connected to the arts building. That building and the auditorium would be repurposed.

The center could eventually be expanded to 32 classrooms.

The facility would also include space for community services that families could utilize. What those wraparound services will be has not been determined, Sparks said, but will be based on what families need. They could include a food pantry or clothing closet, among other ideas.

“I see it as a conduit to get them in touch with the right people,” she said.

Gail Esterman, the director of early learning for ReadyKids said the wraparound services would be a “wonderful” asset to the center. ReadyKids is a nonprofit that provides a range of services to the community such as counseling and professional development for early childhood teachers.

If families need support or have concerns about their child’s development, she said that it can be cumbersome for families to access the necessary resources.

“I’m supportive of anything that expands the opportunity for young children to get a high-quality early childhood experience,” Esterman said of the proposed center.

The VMDO team is working with preschool teachers and administrations to determine the specific designs for the center before the City Council makes a final decision regarding funding in March.

Walker was built in 1966 and designed for middle school students. Instead of renovating the site to meet the needs of small children, the city’s architects recommended constructing a new building. That option also leaves Walker available for central office staff or a potential new elementary school down the road.

During the first phase of the project, the academic building at Walker would be turned into a temporary preschool facility until the center is built. That would entail installing step-stools and bathroom sinks, adding outdoor learning areas and making exterior improvements and cost $1.35 million, according to VMDO.

Before the pandemic, 235 students were in prekindergarten, according to state data. Currently, 221 students in the city’s preschool programs, which include community options such as the YMCA and Barrett Early Learning Center. About 201 preschoolers are in city schools’ classrooms.

“The biggest thing that I think that I’m most excited about, which won’t affect me directly or my children, is the idea of a dedicated preschool,” said Tammy Sutton, a Charlottesville mom. “It’s just another step toward equity.”

Officials have said over the years that the preschool center could open the door to expanding the program. Sutton said childcare in the Charlottesville area is expensive and expanding access to preschool could help families who have to choose between working or sending their child to daycare.

“This is important and investing in our children is the most solid investment in our future,” she said.

According to Child Care Aware Virginia, the city has 41 child care programs for young children — 25 of those are licensed. Looking at licensed capacity, there are 1,763 spots at child care centers, preschools and family child care homes.

For children ages 2 to 3, the average cost of full-time child care in Charlottesville is $274 a week, which would come out to about $14,222 for a full year. For children ages 4 to 5 who aren’t in school, the cost is $229 a week or $11,882 a year.

Providers in Charlottesville and Albemarle account for 75% of all licensed providers in the area for young children as well as those who are school-aged, according to an analysis of Child Care Aware data.

In Albemarle, the average annual cost of full-time child care for those ages 2 to 5 is $10,504, according to Child Care Aware Virginia.

Spaces designed with young kids in mind

Teaching 3- and 4-year-olds requires a different approach compared to teaching older children, Sparks and others said. The younger children learn through play, have nap time during the day and need to move around.

Because small children learn differently, it is important that they learn in spaces designed for them, said Whittaker with UVa.

“They learn by moving their bodies, they learn by playing, they learn by exploring,” she said. “Classrooms have to be set up in a way that really allows for that sense of play in order to incorporate a lot of the learning that they do into their play. So it’s just a very different environment that facilitates young children’s learning than older students, and that needs to be accounted for in any type of redesign.”

Whittaker studies the association between teacher-child interactions in early childhood and children’s academic and social-emotional outcomes. She said studies have highlighted the importance of high-quality interactions for young children.

“We know that the environment can be really supportive of high-quality interactions if there’s space for children to play, if there are spaces for them to be able to calm their bodies when they get upset, if there’s enough room for them to interact with peers, if there’s cozy corners for them to have interactions with their teachers,” she said.

Whittaker said that young children need to be able to go outside and to use the outdoors as part of their early childhood experience.

“So they really need to be able to go outside and to use the outdoors as part of their learning environment,” she said. “You can imagine with a group of four-year-olds, that it’s a lot harder to get them outside than it is, for example, a group of fifth-graders, so having that accessibility to the outdoor learning environment is really key.”

The team at VMDO focused on ensuring that teachers can easily take their classes outside as part of the initial designs. For example, the classrooms are at the same level as the outdoor play and learning spaces.

Access to the outdoors whenever they needed it was a perk of the Jefferson School center, Inge said. The school had a playground and a dedicated area for tricycle riding along with an indoor gym.

Teachers didn’t have to work around the schedules of older students for time in those spaces. Plus, if one student didn’t want to take a nap, another teacher could help out.

“I remember there were kids that didn’t nap and there might be one of the teachers say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna take your two kids that are not napping and my four outside and they can ride bikes or swing on the swing,’” Inge said. “Those are the kind of things that as a center, we were able to do.”

A space designed for young children also means having the sinks, toilets and furniture at the right size, and that makes a difference for all involved, several people said.

“I think it is really going to be exciting to have things that are kind of at their level, and it’s going to be focused on their development and what’s really important in early childhood,” Sparks said.

Whittaker said that it is important for people to keep in mind that the center would affect the most marginalized learners in the schools.

“Because it’s our most vulnerable children who are in these programs,” she said. “We’re designing a high-quality learning environment specifically for early childhood. That hasn’t happened because right now they’re sitting in classrooms that are designed in elementary schools. So the ability to design a space specifically for the development of young learners is really exciting.”

She’s hoping that momentum behind reconfiguration can continue after the first phase is done.

“I have some concerns that momentum will get lost once that redesign happens because there just aren’t as many advocates in the early childhood arena as there are for older students,” she said.

Overall, Sparks said a new early childhood center could help the school division provide professional learning support over preschool providers in the area along with student teachers.

“This program has historically been very well respected across the community and across the state,” Sparks said. “… We want to really take that lead and take it to the next level.”

She’s hopeful that the city and school division will be able to take next steps to make the center a reality.

“Because it really is for generations to come and for the children who aren’t even born yet, that’s who this is for,” she said.


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