My View / Councilman Rob Krupicka

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A Strong Foundation Builds Strong Students
In Alexandria, hundreds of new students have entered kindergarten.  They, and their parents, are tense with excitement for what lies ahead. But some children will be ready to take full advantage of what their schools have to offer, and others will not.  Through no fault of their own, some will be much better prepared for school than others.

These differences are the reason Alexandria and the entire state of Virginia needs to focus more attention on what happens before a child gets to kindergarten.  Because of a great inequity in quality and access to early development opportunities, many children start school on an uneven playing field from day one.  All of us suffer from this disparity because our schools are forced to focus a disproportionate amount of their efforts and resources to level that playing field rather than moving all children forward.  And as shown in a resent study [8/20] from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a law-enforcement organization, early education puts kids on the right track, reduces drop-out rates and can reduce crime. School readiness plays a large role in shaping how a child succeeds. Parents, churches, playgroups, baby sitters and high-quality childcare and preschool all have roles to play.

The focus on school readiness is not about a new test or pushing kids towards structured learning too early. Evaluations, like those used in kindergarten, are important, but the point of a focus on school readiness is not to just identify the kids in kindergarten that are more likely to have challenges in school.  The point is to work towards a time when no child is likely to have challenges because we have provided them with the support beforehand that will help them excel.

The skills and experiences that make up school readiness are common sense things. We are talking about children knowing word sounds and colors because they have been read and talked to and have had time to draw.  Or knowing how to communicate with, play and get along with others because they have had a chance to build social skills. Or recognizing some basic shapes and learning how to ask questions about the world around them skills that help to prepare them for math and science. These are the skills that will serve them in school and in life where they have to work with and cooperate with others to succeed. Each year, there are thousands of children who lack in these and other building-block skills.

Parents have the most important role to play by reading to their kids, teaching children to explore the world and interact with others and ensuring they are healthy. But the community and schools have a part to play as well.  When children go to parks, libraries, museums, walk in the woods, or experience new things their minds and imagination grow. Communities have a clear role to play to ensure access to a variety of quality experiences.  And teachers and school staff members should not be just waiting for kids to show up at school, but reaching out into the community encouraging parents and coordinating with preschool and child care providers in order to improve school readiness.

We need to plan ahead and lay out a path that helps parents, day care centers and preschools fully support Virginias children.  I led an effort last year to create a statewide vision for school readiness.  And last April, the Virginia State Board of Education adopted our formal Definition of School Readiness to be used throughout the state.  Taking some of the best ideas from states like Oklahoma, Georgia and North Carolina that are leading the effort to ensure all children are prepared to learn, Virginias definition is based on four precepts:  Ready Children, Ready Families, Ready Schools and Ready Communities.   Everybody has a role to play and the definition lays out basic responsibilities for each of the four groups.

The definition helps give communities and parents an idea of what we do but it isnt an end. The Commonwealth and our community must make school readiness a greater priority. We took a small step last year when the Council supported my request to allocate new funding for students to attend pre-school as well as to improve the quality of pre-school in Alexandria.  And the year before, the Council provided new funds to support childcare for low income working families after the federal government failed to continue its support.

This year we need to keep pushing for increased pre-school access and higher program quality. Its true budgets will be tight this year and our ability to expand will be limited.  But well mortgage our future if we take the view that the next few years of kids just wont get the support they need to succeed.  Well just end up paying for it later.

With our new school superintendent and his strong support of early childhood education, we have a great opportunity. The City Council and School Board should develop a plan to give our schools a much greater role in the management and coordination of early childhood education.  Most areas of the state manage pre-school programs through the schools. Coordination with the educational goals of our schools helps ensure clear alignment of our efforts.  It helps us ensure our early childhood education investments are creating the best benefit for student success in school. Better alignment between private and public pre-school programs will help us best manage our limited preschool classroom space in the city.  And it should help us spend our money as efficiently as possible. The goal of this proposal isnt to create a one-size-fits-all effort.  A mix of private and public programs gives parents the ability to make choices that make sense for them. The goal of this effort is to treat early childhood education as it should be treated as the first step towards success in school.

We have so much to gain by laying the right foundation. When the day comes that all of our children are ready for school we will see the full potential of our investments in education.  Prepared children and high quality schools are the best recipe for long-term educational success.

Rob Krupicka is a member of the Alexandria City Council and Chair of Governor Kaines School Readiness Task Force.

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