A statewide study found forty percent of Virginia’s 5-year-olds were not ready for kindergarten. The governor – a pediatric neurologist – and his wife -- a teacher -- knew some of those kids would fall behind in school and never catch up. That’s why they hired a chief school readiness officer and launched a $10 million program to study and fix the problem.
Today’s pre-school is more than story time and naps, building blocks and snacks.
Before heading to kindergarten, 21st century children are expected to know their numbers, letters and colors – to have mastered certain social skills and to control their behavior.
"It’s not babysitting anymore, and whether it’s an infant, a toddler, a 3 or 4-year-old, every kid deserves a learning environment that supports them to grow," says Jenna Conway, Virginia’s first chief readiness officer. She explains that kids who don’t know letters or numbers can quickly catch up – but learning appropriate behavior takes time.
Whether they lack academic, social or behavioral skills Conway says 40% of Virginia’s kids – nearly 30,000 of them -- are not ready for kindergarten when the time comes, usually because they haven’t had access to high quality pre-school.
"Right now in the Commonwealth infant care costs more than in-state tuition!" she says. "Parents are scrambling – having to put their kids in unlicensed, unregulated, unsafe settings, while they’re just trying to keep their job."
So she and her team have set-out to fix that.
"We've registered nearly 600 sites and engaged nearly 3,000 teachers. We got 80% of our teachers responding to a survey explaining some of what their experiences are like and how we can better support them. "
Among other things, she says, pre-school teachers need guidance.
"Most of our infant and toddler teachers never receive any feedback. We don’t actually treat them like professional educators, and so we’re going in across 27 jurisdictions – about 20 percent of the state – thru this pilot, and making sure that every pre-school teacher gets feedback and supports to be the best educator they can be."
At UVA’s School of Education, Dean Bob Pianta applauds the effort and suggests that pre-school programs need a formal way to work with public and private schools – to assure that everyone’s on the same page.
"A lot of communities across the country, they’ll set up an early learning council that doesn’t just involve child care and preschools." he says. "It involves the elementary schools in the community, and really what you need is that kind of overarching structure that enables planning to take place in a coordinated fashion."
Conway adds that outreach to parents is also important to assuring children are ready for kindergarten.
"We have to recognize that our families are our kids’ first teachers, and so helping our families understand: how do you support the learning. It’s not a flash card. It’s not a work sheet. It’s about giving kids opportunities to tell stories, reading to kids every single night, even when they’re very little and you’re not sure that they’re understanding it and constantly talking to your kids."
That’s because good language skills are key to suitable school behavior.
"The best way a kid can deal with big emotions is if he or she has the ability to talk about it and explain their feelings."
Time will tell whether this new emphasis on early education will make a difference as students make their way through school, but superintendents, school administrators, researchers and government officials are interested. About 200 of them attended a conference on the subject at UVA, and Virginia has applied for a $37.5 million federal grant to expand its program – hoping to support pre-schools statewide.