Space shortages for daycare decried

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As Virginia Governor Tim Kaine continues to promote universal access to preschool, Alexandrias half day programs are facing the possibility of losing spaces.

The Valley Drive preschool in the city has been open for 50 years. This spring, because of a change in the church that serves as the schools home, the program was asked to look for new space. We have worked out a solution and are going to be able to stay where we are for now but it was quite traumatic for many of us who depend on the school, said Stephanie Oppenheimer, the parent of two children who attend the Valley Drive program. We called every church within five miles of Alexandria and, either they already had preschool programs or they were using all of their space for church-related programs.

We looked at commercial space but that was too expensive. Residential space was available but the zoning regulations are so complicated that we didnt want to take the risk of purchasing or leasing residential space and then being denied a permit, Oppenheimer said.

Like many half-day programs, Valley Drive operates from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. The cost is affordable so we can provide our kids with a quality preschool experience and still have time with them ourselves, Oppenheimer said.

As a result of the Valley Drive experience and the loss of half-day preschool spaces over the past two years, a group of half-day preschool directors sent a letter to the mayor, City Council and the Alexandria School Board earlier this summer.

We believe that it is time for our city and schools to consider some creative solutions to the preschool-space shortage. Could zoning restrictions be loosened? Could the city or schools consider leasing under-utilized space to preschools? Could the city or schools build some new private-public partnerships with independent and non-profit schools? Are there unused school trailers that could house preschools temporarily as they raise funds for new facilities? Are there loan or grant programs that the city and schools may be willing to consider helping the local preschool community?

We raise these questions not because we think one of them is the easy answer, but instead as a bridge to thinking more holistically about how we care for the young children in our city. To remain a vibrant city with a healthy job market, we need our young families. To continue strengthening our schools, we need more and more children to enter kindergarten with high-quality preschool experiences. If we can work together on the problem of preschool access, we can create a win-win situation for everyone especially Alexandrias kids, the letter said.

Sharing concerns
School Board member Scott Newsham became aware of the problem in March and encouraged the preschool directors to write the letter. I share their concerns and am committed to working with their organization, the city of Alexandria, and Alexandria City Public Schools to find a viable long-term solution, Newsham said.

A willingness to work with the preschools to find solutions must be combined with a willingness to look at relaxing zoning restrictions. Councilman Rob Krupicka asked Planning Director Farroll Hamer to look into the issue.

Child care centers and private schools are two of the uses that staff has identified for possible change from an SUP use to a permitted/conditional use in nonresidential zoning districts, Hamer said.  In regard to other solutions to create more preschool space in the city staff will convene a meeting this summer with the appropriate departments to begin discussion on how best to approach these suggestions.

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