The Arlington County public school system has expanded its extended day-care services to include 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, in hopes of encouraging more parents to sign their children up for early childhood education programs.
Starting next week, 4-year-olds will be able to take part in supervised before and after school care in half of the county’s elementary schools. The 11 schools with the highest percentage of students from low-income families were chosen as sites for the enhanced extended day services.
The past policy of requiring families to pick up preschoolers early in the afternoon, even if older siblings were still in class, placed a burden on working parents, school officials said.
"These children are our students and should be treated like the others in the school," Superintendent Robert Smith said. "The families should be treated the same way as others in the school community."
Many low-income families do not enroll their children in the school system’s two preschool programs because they work long hours, or multiple jobs, and cannot afford to pay for private day care in the late afternoon, School Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey said. By providing before and after school services, school officials hope to increase the number of at-risk youth in preschool.
"We hope that families in need, who might otherwise not have access to early childhood education, will be able to use this," said School Board member Ed Fendley.
Fifty 4-year-olds have already been registered for extended day and 19 are on the waiting list, said Patti Macie, director of the extended day program. The goal is to be able to remove all students from the waiting list in the weeks after the school year begins, Macie said.
Last year an average of 2,200 elementary and middle school students every day took advantage of the county’s extended day program. Though the waiting list constantly fluctuated, some weeks it was as long as 100 students countywide, Macie said.
To meet the expected demand for the new service, the School Board allocated $347,000 in this year’s budget to pay for 22 additional extended day teachers in the 11 schools.
The extended day program runs from 7 a.m. until the start of school each day, and from the time classes conclude until 6 p.m. Monthly fees for the program are based on a sliding scale, with parents paying between $8 and $400, depending on income level.
The School Board will evaluate the extended day additions later this year and decide whether to implement it at the 10 other elementary schools. For more than a decade, Campbell Elementary has provided extended day for preschoolers.
"We didn’t want to do everything at once, but do a number of schools and see how it works," Garvey said. "I believe it will be effective and then we will ask to expand it to more sites."
School officials have repeatedly called for increased preschool opportunities for Arlington children, citing it as a key to boosting academic achievement and reducing the county’s minority achievement gap.
"Research has shown that kids who come through a preschool program do significantly better in Kindergarten and later in school," said School Board Chair Mary Hynes.
This year, new Virginia Preschool Initiative classes are being added at Arlington Science Focus and Carlin Springs elementary schools.
The initiative was started a decade ago for 4-year-olds whose parents could not afford private preschools. For a child to be eligible this year, a family child has to earn less than $62,000, said Michelle Picard, Arlington schools’ supervisor of early childhood education.
Four hundred Arlington children are expected to enroll in the 25 classes this year. The school system provides more than 80 percent of the cost, with the state picking up the tab on the rest.
Two-thirds of 374 spots in the Montessori program— the other schools-run preschool offering— are reserved for children from families who also earn less than $62,000, with the remaining positions going to children of any income via a lottery system.
Earlier this month the school system applied to become the provider of the Head Start program in the county, which serves an additional 300 low-income children.
A new a class providing infant and toddler care for teenage mothers attending Arlington schools will open at Glebe Elementary School this fall, run by one full-time teacher and two assistants.