The statistics are hard to refute: 35 percent of children do not have the foundation skills necessary to learn to read when they enter kindergarten; less than half of Virginia’s 4-year-olds take part in an organized pre-kindergarten program; 90 percent of a child’s brain growth is complete by the age of five. But translating these statistics into policy is tricky.
The movement to make pre-kindergarten universally available has been growing in Virginia for some time. Last year, Gov.Tim Kaine campaigned aggressively on the issue of expanding access to pre-kindergarten. Now, with battles over the budget and transportation winding down, Kaine has signaled that pre-kindergarten will be his next big initiative. And when he announced his “Strong Start Pre-K Council” last month, two Alexandria leaders were included in the list: City Councilman Rob Krupicka and businessman Robert Dugger.
“Right now, we don’t know what’s best for a child over the arc of its life,” Dugger said. “Putting together solid research and offering solutions will be one of the major goals of the council.”
Currently, 70 percent of Alexandria 4-year-olds receive pre-kindergarten instruction from a variety of sources. Providers include a patchwork of services: private full-pay organizations, free programs offered by the Child and Family Network Services, Head Start services offered by the Campagna Center and special classes offered to disabled pre-schoolers from Alexandria City Public Schools.
“Patchwork isn’t bad,” said Dugger, who is managing director of Tudor Investment Corporation. “As long as all the needs are met, patchwork isn’t a problem.”
<b>MEETING THE</b> needs of Virginia’s children will be a difficult task. In selling his initiative, Gov. Kaine has used an array of experts to make his point for him. He recited figures from the Virginia Department of Education that showed 71 percent of Virginia’s third graders — 25,000 students — who were unable to pass the Standards of Learning. He cited Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman, who supports investing in pre-kindergarten programs as a way to prepare children for the 21st-century workplace. The plan he released during the campaign even quoted a December 2003 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that concluded early childhood development programs are too often “at the bottom of the economic development lists for state and local governments. They should be at the top.”
“Ninety percent of a child’s brain growth is complete by the age of five,” Kaine said in August, when he announced his program to increase the availability of pre-kindergarten. “Our Strong Start initiative will provide all Virginia four-year-olds the opportunity to attend high-quality pre-kindergarten and enter school ready to read and ready to succeed.”
During the campaign Councilman Krupicka was part of the group that put together Kaine’s policy proposals for expanding pre-kindergarten access. Now that Kaine has been elected, Krupicka will play a central role as part of the Strong Start Pre-K Council. He says that one of the challenges of the council will be finding individualized solutions for the varying needs of localities.
“Here in Alexandria, we have a problem finding space,” Krupicka said. “Other jurisdictions don’t have that problem.”
According to a recent report by Alexandria City Public Schools, about 30 percent of Alexandria’s 4-year-olds are not currently enrolled in a pre-kindergarten program. While that’s below the statewide average, Krupicka said that the council must find a way to sculpt Kaine’s policy proposals to adapt to varying needs across Virginia.
“The premise of the council is that every community needs a program that’s appropriate,” Krupicka said. “We need a plan that respects differences.”
<b>PUTTING TOGETHER</b> a policy proposal for Virginia’s children involves two major tasks: detailing its components and selling the concept. Del. Brian Moran (D-46) says that the council should focus its initial energy on promoting the idea of universal access to pre-kindergarten before descending into the weeds of policy minutiae.
“I’d encourage the council members to educate Virginia’s policy leaders about how important this issue it,” Moran said. “Once you’ve got them convinced, then finding a way to accomplish the goal will be much easier.”
School Board chairwoman Mollie Danforth said that she is concerned about the 30 percent of Alexandria’s 4-year-olds who are not enrolled in a pre-kindergarten program. She said that moving toward 100 percent enrollment may take a multi-faceted approach.
“One of the barriers is cultural,” Danforth said. “A lot of parents don’t realize that this is something that you are supposed to do.”