Our View: Centralized preschool is an intriguing, but unfinished idea

Our View: Centralized preschool is an intriguing, but unfinished idea
(File Photo)

(File photo)

Disadvantaged children should have the same educational opportunities as their wealthier counterparts. We think virtually everyone in Alexandria supports this egalitarian concept.

And yet, support for universal preschool isn’t universal.

The reason many people equivocate on putting tax dollars into preschool programs is that a number of studies indicate academic gains from preschool are short-lived. That may be so, but we support expanding preschool anyway for a variety of reasons.

The first is egalitarian. If the benefits of preschool are unclear, then why, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, do 84 percent of families with annual incomes of more than $100,000 send their 4-year-olds to preschool?

The second is common sense: Studies have shown that wealthier children by age 4 have heard many millions more words than their less advantaged counterparts. Preschool is an opportunity to start closing that vocabulary gap.

Finally, it is in our city’s self-interest to start closing the language gap at the earliest opportunity, given the more than 100 languages that are spoken among our student population.

Alexandria is part of a nationwide trend toward expanding preschool. The quandary has been how to do it, given that the city’s schools are already overcrowded. Shoehorning more 4-year-olds into schools already bursting at the seams isn’t viable.

So officials with Alexandria City Public Schools deserve credit for coming up with an innovative solution to this dilemma that, at face value, provides the win-win-win outcome of expanding preschool opportunities while reducing school overcrowding at a much lower cost than building a new school.

We are impressed with the creativity and outside the box thinking that went into developing the plan to centralize preschool in a facility on the West End. The building would be renovated to house preschool and wrap-around services for the city’s 4-year-old children. According to school board chairwoman Karen Graf, this move would also free up 20 classrooms in city schools that could be used to ease current overcrowding at other grade levels.

While we applaud the thinking that led to this idea, we encourage city council to avoid fast-tracking it until or unless several important questions can be satisfactorily answered.

The first question is very basic: Is it good for most of Alexandria’s 4-year-olds in a city of 140,000 people to attend preschool in one location? Has this model been successfully done elsewhere? The closest analogy we currently have is that all of the city’s public school ninth graders attend the T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus. Reviews on this set-up have been mixed at best, even though the school is for much older students.

The second main question involves logistics. How will the city provide busing? Is it feasible to bus 4-year-olds from one side of the city to the other in terms of both cost and the experience of the students? If busing is not provided, this cross-city idea seems like a non-starter, as it is likely unrealistic to expect that many families will be able to get their small children to and from a far-away destination each day.

In short, we think this is an idea worth fully exploring. But funds should not be allocated until that exploration takes place. No one wants their child to be an educational guinea pig.