Presented by Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area
Virginia is taking big steps to help its youngest learners
The first five years of a child’s life lay the foundation for academic success. Making high-quality preschool programs available to all of Virginia’s youngest learners is the focus of recent bipartisan legislation passed by the General Assembly.
The new legislation places all programs serving children ages 0 to 5—from home-based care providers to public preschools—under the state Department of Education, with funding for a new Superintendent of Early Childhood position.
This “birth-to-12th-grade” approach is evidence of the state’s recognition that better support is needed for Virginia’s youngest learners and those who educate them, said Jenna Conway, Virginia’s first Chief School Readiness Officer.
Gov. Ralph Northam and First Lady Pamela Northam created Conway’s position as part of their focus on early childhood.
That interest stems from both their professional backgrounds—he’s a pediatric neurologist, and she’s a former pediatric occupational therapist—and statistics about kindergarten readiness in the commonwealth.
Assessments by the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program in fall 2019 showed that 44% of the state’s kindergarteners were unprepared for kindergarten in one or more of the critical areas of literacy, social skills, math or self-regulation.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem
The Virginia Department of Education reported in January that literacy tests from fall 2020 showed a 10% jump in the number of kindergartners and first-graders testing below benchmark reading levels.
“That was a real red flag for us, so we have been really thinking about what that means for our youngest learners, both those who are currently in kindergarten, and those who may have missed out on preschool,” Conway said.
The state saw Head Start and Virginia Preschool Initiative enrollments drop last year as many parents opted to keep children home due to the pandemic. One way that the state is trying to respond to this is by offering a first-ever waiver that will allow school divisions to allow children who are age-eligible for kindergarten to participate in a year of the Virginia Preschool Initiative if they missed preschool because of Covid-19.
This is part of a greater recognition that the years before kindergarten are so crucial.
To improve kindergarten readiness for the long-term, Conway said the state is focusing on two areas: access and quality.
More expensive than college
Conway points to the paradox of childcare economics, where care can cost more than in-state tuition at many Virginia colleges, yet educators get paid an average wage of under $12 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Much of this is driven by the fact that student-to-teacher ratios must be extremely low in infant and toddler programs.
“We need to figure out how to make it more affordable and how we pay our infant and toddler teachers more,” she said. “If they just rely on the market, they get a wage that is not livable.”
In 2021, the General Assembly passed legislation to expand the state’s Child Care Subsidy Program. This program is for providers in private settings through the Preschool Development Grant Birth-Five (PDG B-5).
Under the new rules, a single parent making less than $60,000 a year can qualify for state assistance paying for care for a child under 5, compared to the previous income limit of less than $32,000 a year. The state also relaxed work requirements, so parents can get assistance when they are looking for a job, compared to previously, when they had to be in school or working.
On the provider side, Conway said the state has implemented a Teacher Recognition Program that offers payments of up to $2,000 per year for educators who work with children ages 0 to 5 in recognition of the fact that this workforce gets paid significantly less than K-12 teachers.
“We have very high turnover in childcare,” Conway said. “That is both stressful and not great for kids. Kids learn in the context of loving, trusted relationships.”
She added that recognizing early childhood educators is more important than ever coming out of the pandemic, as many of these educators continued to work in-person with children as public schools closed.
“They have truly been lifesavers,” she said. “Child care kept its doors open, including nearly 80% of our heroic educators who offer child care in their homes, and that is a big risk. … But that was absolutely necessary for all of the employees who support our health care system or keep the food supply chain functioning.”
A system for measurement and improvement
Virginia Quality in the North Central region, a quality rating and improvement system managed by Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area, will play a role in another new state initiative that calls for the establishment of a uniform measurement and improvement systems for all programs serving children 0 to 5.
“We want to get a better understanding for our leaders, our educators and our families of what our children are experiencing in their classrooms,” Conway said. “We plan to use a national measure to look at the warmth and responsiveness of interactions in the classrooms, how the educator supports all the emotions and behaviors that are natural for these age groups.”
While the program is being run out of the Department of Education, Conway stressed that the approach will be specific to the various needs of infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
“This is not about standardized testing,” she said. “Kids develop at very different rates. We put out this new set of standards to help educators and families understand when something is not typical, but even the range for typical development is quite broad.”
This assessment tool will be rolled out over a period of years so that providers can get used to it, but the eventual goal is to provide an easily accessible way for Virginia parents to find information on quality childcare options that fit their lifestyle and budget needs.
“We believe in the power of all of our educators, and we know that we have extraordinary programs that are run out of homes, as well as terrific centers and preschools,” Conway said. “We created this uniform measurement and improvement system to have a true north for what we want for all kids.”
To learn more about kindergarten readiness efforts in the Fredericksburg region, and about Virginia Quality, visit smartbeginningsra.org.