Residents, teachers advocate for expanded preschool services

Residents, teachers advocate for expanded preschool services
(File Photo)

By Chris Teale (File photo)

Alexandria City Public Schools’ proposal to create a centralized pre-K center in the city in fall 2017 took center stage at city council’s Saturday public hearing, as supporters and opponents addressed councilors on the plan and the need for robust preschool offerings.

Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley suggested a centralized pre-K facility for 360 students in January when he presented his $278.9 million ACPS operating budget proposal for fiscal 2017. City Manager Mark Jinks included contingent funds for the pre-K center in his proposed city operating budget when he unveiled it in February, meaning council can either appropriate them during the upcoming add/delete process or leave them in reserve until a later date.

Alexandria City School Board chairwoman Karen Graf wrote a letter to ACPS parents and staff urging them to come to council’s monthly public hearing and explain why pre-K is so important. Preschool is offered in a variety of ACPS and non-ACPS settings, including through the federal Head Start program and the Virginia Preschool Initiative at John Adams Elementary School, among others.

“Our proposal includes increasing opportunities to offer families the ability to attend a center-based program that houses a variety of wrap-around services in an environment specially designed and programmed for early learners,” Graf wrote. “A blended model of educational services promotes equity and excellence through an aligned curriculum, allows for shared resources, and facilitates common planning and professional learning of staff regardless of funding streams.”

At City Hall, several speakers said attending preschool gives students a solid foundation ahead of beginning elementary school, and that the gap between those who did and those who did not attend preschool is noticeable.

“Preschool shapes students’ beliefs and habits as they learn to cooperate, navigate relationships, solve problems, understand their emotions, make decisions and much more,” said Sarah Adams, a VPI teacher at John Adams.

“Kindergarten is a huge jump,” said Molly McCabe, a kindergarten teacher at John Adams. “It’s packed full of information, it’s a great and exciting year, but kids need to be ready.”

Several of those who testified emphasized the importance of pre-K for those from different socioeconomic backgrounds. There is no universal pre-K in Virginia, despite it having been proposed several times in previous years, including by former Gov. Tim Kaine (D).

“I think that it’s very important that the same students with the same potential with the same parents that have the same caring that I have be able to access the pre-K program and get their students the same start that my kids had, and not have to miss out because they can’t pay for it,” said Lorna Eaton, an ACPS preschool teacher.

“If it were not for our amazing situation of preschool and VPI, these children would not have these experiences,” said Beth Pellowitz, a preschool teacher at John Adams, referring to the opportunities for field trips and other enrichment. “They come from a multitude of different socioeconomic backgrounds that might not allow for this kind of situation.”

Capacity concerns weighed heavily on the minds of ACPS officials in proposing the centralized pre-K center. Graf estimated in her letter to parents that the centralization would free up 20 classrooms, which could then be used by 500 K-5 students.

She also said overcrowding prevents many elementary school students from attending their neighborhood school. John Adams currently has 1,017 students and a projection of 1,192 in 2020 with a building capacity of 858. William Ramsay Elementary School has 917 students and a projected 2020 enrollment of 950 students with a building capacity of 748.

Opponents of the proposed pre-K center said that centralization is not the answer to these capacity worries. Julie Jakopic, chairwoman of the board of trustees at early childhood and adult education nonprofit Hopkins House, said there is no evidence to suggest that placing that many 4-year-olds under one roof is beneficial, and that it may create tremendous divides across the school community.

“We want kids to be with other kids,” she said. “We don’t want to pit the big kids against the little kids. We want the little kids to get everything they need.”

Rob Dugger, a board member at Hopkins House, said that the need for parents to get their children to a centralized preschool facility might place undue stress on them. He said if those parents have work to balance and are seeing their children leave their neighborhood every day, it could affect both the adults and children in those relationships.

“I urge you to forget this warehouse pre-K plan,” he said. “It’ll just hurt kids and increase parent stress.”

Dugger proposed that the city convene all organizations involved in early childhood education to discuss how things can be made easier in the current system. Kate Garvey, director of the department of community and human services, noted that there will be plenty of collaboration moving forward, whatever council’s decision.

Councilors will decide in the coming weeks whether to earmark funds for the pre-K center, either appropriated immediately through the add/delete process or left in reserve to foster more discussion.