HCPS Preschool Programs May Expand

Some parents in eastern and western Henrico soon could have new preschool options for their children.

The Henrico County School Board is considering an expansion of the school system’s federal preschool programs, which currently serve 532 students but have a waiting list of almost the same number.

Expanding the programs – Head Start, the Title I Four Year Old Program and the Virginia Preschool Initiative – by eight classrooms at New Bridge School in Eastern Henrico would allow an additional 144 students from the attendance zones of 14 nearby schools to participate, Henrico County Public Schools Federal Programs Coordinator Gail Jones told the School Board earlier this month.

An additional expansion that would serve more students in western Henrico also is possible at the Children’s Museum of Richmond’s new Short Pump location at West Broad Village, she said. (That facility has classroom space, and CMoR officials are expected to present a partnership proposal to HCPS officials soon.)

“Research shows that there is tremendous value to students who are afforded a preschool education,” said Pam Bell, executive director of elementary education for HCPS.

Interest in the three preschool programs currently offered in 30 classrooms at 22 schools in Henrico has increased significantly in recent years. The programs served 159 students, with 144 on a waiting list, during the 2006-07 school year, but both numbers have more than tripled since.

Jones attributed the increase to the recession, which has made it more difficult for many parents to afford $200 a week or more for private preschool, and increased awareness of the programs, which are free to participants who qualify.

Participating families must meet certain selection standards; officials seek to assist the neediest families first, based on a list of criteria that includes household income, employment status of parents and medical insurance status, among others, Jones said.

Students who participate in the HCPS programs receive breakfast, lunch and a snack daily, as well as clothing when required, materials and a backpack. The average cost of a week’s tuition at private preschools in the region is $200, Jones said.

Officials at three of the 22 schools currently offering preschool have volunteered to devote more space to their programs if funding becomes available for expansion because they’ve been so successful, Jones said.

“Parents and principals are singing the praises and seeing the benefits in kindergarten because our students are more ready than they’ve ever been,” she said.

Though expansion of the programs would utilize primarily federal and state funds, the school system would be required by the Virginia Preschool Initiative to spend matching funds totaling $283,000. That money would pay the salaries of eight new teachers, eight instructional assistants, a clinic attendant, a cafeteria staff member, a school secretary and a family service worker.

Henrico’s current preschool waiting list is 515 students – more than 300 of whom are already qualified for Head Start, Jones said.

Children who attend “effective preschool” are more likely to be learning at grade level by the third grade; more likely to graduate high school and attend college; and less likely to be incarcerated or receive public assistance later in life than students who do not attend preschool, a RAND preschool study concluded in 2008.

Henrico Superintendent Pat Russo told the board that affording greater access to preschool for as many students as possible would be worth the extra expense.

“If we’re going to make some changes in student performances, especially getting through that primary levels, you really need to do it at the preschool level and prepare them,” he said, “so I think these are well invested dollars.”
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