Nearly half of all public school students entering kindergarten in Alexandria have had no pre-school experience. These students are mostly from economically disadvantaged families. Half of them don't pass the literacy screening tests. They are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be involved in crime.
Because of this, City Councilman Rob Krupicka and School Board Member Arthur Schmalz are spearheading a movement to make pre-kindergarten available to more children in Alexandria.
"Simply put, the time has come to make quality pre-school services available to all of this city's children," they wrote in a March 28 memorandum. "We intend to seek funding in this year's city and School Board budgets to help the city and school administrations work with Alexandria pre-school providers, parents, the Early Childhood Commission and other stakeholders to craft an implementation strategy for expanded pre-school access in Alexandria .... The goal is to begin expanding pre-school access by no later than the fall of 2006, and then work to expand such access further every year thereafter."
Krupicka and Schmalz have prepared a joint resolution to ask the Early Childhood Commission with putting together a plan to create universal access to pre-kindergarten in Alexandria. The School Board unanimously voted to approve the resolution in its first meeting after the summer recess on Sept. 8. The City Council will take up the matter at its next legislative session on Sept. 27.
"There are not enough slots for all the kids who need pre-K," said Carol Farrell, director of the city's Office for Early Childhood Development. "A plan would include a complete look at what we already have in the city and examine the barriers that exist to prevent kids from getting a preschool experience."
KINDERGARTEN TEACHERS in Alexandria report that 48 percent of children in the city are not ready to learn when they enter kindergarten. The annual literacy screening test results show the importance of preparing for kindergarten: 87.5 percent of students who went to preschool pass while 57.4 percent of those who did not go to preschool do not.
"A lot of other industrialized countries understand the importance of early childhood education such as France and the U.K.," said School Board chairwoman Mollie Danforth. "The studies are clear, and they all show that they are learning from the time that they are born."
The city's experience with its Kindergarten Preparation Program shows the power of early childhood education. A 2003 examination of the city's program showed that children who participated in the two-week program had higher average literacy scores, were absent from school less often and were more likely to be promoted to first grade. Furthermore, the study illustrated that exposing students to literacy fundamentals in early years developed greater knowledge and superior reading skills than students with less exposure.
Students in neighboring jurisdictions experienced similar success with pre-kindergarten. Kindergartners who attended Arlington Public Schools preschools and qualify for lunch subsidies passed the kindergarten literacy screening at higher rates than the average entering kindergartner. For Alexandria, one of the barriers to universal access to pre-kindergarten is coordination.
"The way things work now, things are kind of scattershot," said Katherine Morrison, president of the Campagna Center, which administers the federal Head Start program. "We don't have a good mechanism for directing parents to the resources that are available."
Morrison says that the array of services available for parents can be confusing, and finding the right fit can take some work. For example, families must be at the federal poverty level to qualify for Head Start but they can be at 185 percent of the poverty level to quality for Network Preschool. The city's Child Day Care Fee System works on a sliding scale, and families are eligible up to 250 percent of the poverty level. At the high end, a family that makes $47,136 a year would pay $393 a month.
"The system might work better if we had citywide registration for pre-K," Morrison said, adding that the coming debate on pre-kindergarten could raise many questions about what the city's priorities should be. "Should we give a higher priority to 4-year-olds so that more kids have access to pre-K? That's one of the questions that the city might want to consider."