Request for ‘At-Risk Kids’ on chopping block

Above: Smiling four-year-old students from a recent Richmond County pre-school class.

Richmond County has long been heralded as one of the top educational districts in the region, providing superior education in tough economic times.

A recent decision by some county supervisors, however, may preclude a few of the most at-risk children from attending Richmond County’s pre-school, part of the commonwealth’s Pre-School Initiative Program, due to a budgetary decision not to allocate $4,000 in matching funds to allow the class to continue annually hosting two of the 21 needy 4-year-olds currently enrolled.

According to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), in 1994 the Commission on Equity in Public Education adopted and endorsed four major programs as the core elements in their recommendations to the General Assembly, which were subsequently adopted.

The recommendations “focused on programs that had been shown to improve educational achievement,” including a preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds.

In 1995, the General Assembly, through passage of the Omnibus Education Act and the Appropriation Act, reinforced all components of the 1994 package and provided for expansion of the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI).

Currently, funds are available to provide comprehensive preschool programs to Virginia’s at-risk 4-year-olds, as defined by VPI funding eligibility, and who are not being served by Head Start, a program that may not be available next year due to controversial state allocation cutbacks.

To obtain state funding, localities like Richmond County must develop a written local plan for their program which includes five core services: quality preschool education; parental involvement; comprehensive child health services; comprehensive social services and transportation.

Area students involved in the program are bussed with other public school students daily and provided with a curriculum which, in most cases, they would not otherwise receive.

During an April 17 budget work session, members came to a consensus, with Dist. 4 Supervisor Courtney Sisson dissenting, to level fund the pre-school.

The move to not include the additional $4,000 of county monies to match recently awarded state and federal funding of approximately $16,000, which covers the expenses of two new students, could prove a burden to the program.

“First of all, these children…they would qualify for Federal assistance if they wanted to go elsewhere,” said Dist. 3 Supervisor John Haynes during the work session. “What bothers me bringing in a new teacher, are we going to be able to control the program continuing to expand? I also worry too, anytime we have something [that is] a quasi-agency of the school/government that we are taking over more and more of a private daycare center industry.”

It is a statement that Pre-School Director April Walker said in a recent interview was indicative of the common misperception of her agency.

According to Walker, the VDOE allocates their funding in June, after the county has already finalized their budget.

Last year, the pre-school asked for level funding of 19 students, but were pleasantly surprised when the commonwealth assessed local needs at a minimum of 21 at-risk children, for which the county received the additional $16,000 in funding but did not appropriate the matching funding to the schools due to an oversight.

The two additional students were enrolled, with no need for an increase in staff, as the state mandates that classrooms exceed no more than 18 students.

Currently the program has two rooms, each with a designated teacher, to meet those requirements. Therefore, the funding requested by Walker’s department, despite Haynes’ assertion, would not include an additional teacher.

As defined by the state, those students who are eligible to attend must meet risk factors which include “living in poverty, homelessness, the child’s parents or guardians are school dropouts, have limited education, or are chronically ill, the child’s family is under stress as evidenced by poverty, episodes of violence, crime, underemployment, unemployment, homelessness, or incarceration, the child has health or developmental problems including, but not limited to, developmental delays, low birth weight, substance abuse or the child [has] an English language” barrier.

When granted two additional students, Walker’s agency chose to immediately seek funds to include the children, including asking for assistance from the school board by way of materials for the children, and donations from the community. Those funds, however, are becoming difficult to find, Walker said, adding that she had hoped that the county would continue their history of matching state appropriations.

“If [the county doesn’t] make their match, we have to find it and it getting harder and harder,” Walker said on Monday, adding that her program is one of less than a handful in the state that are not run directly out of a public elementary school.

“The county gets a bargain as we don’t have many of the staff necessary at the school. Everything is in-house,” she said.

Additionally, the school currently pays $1,500 a month in rent to the county.

It is a sum that may be partially due to the lack of understanding about the delineation between the different programs housed at the facility on Walnut Street in Warsaw.

Currently the building houses a private day care, paid out-of-pocket by most parents, the Head Start program as well as the two Pre-School classes.

Most students are transported to the school through public bussing and are provided breakfast, lunch and a snack during the day.

“Some of our students have never even picked up a fork,” Walker said. “These children come in and have never sat down and listened to a book being read to them. They have no concept of text or letters and it takes a good month just to explain what words on a page are.”

She added that many have never sat down at a table for a meal.

“I had a child who had never seen peas and wanted to know what was in them and what they were made of,” she said. “Here they are getting full blown USDA meals and for some of them it is all they eat for the day.”

She noted that two of her current students were homeless and that the majority could not recognize just 10 letters of the alphabet when they began the school year.

“Right now, all of our students can now write their first name and most can write their last name,” Walker said, adding that some of the at-risk students had never painted, colored with crayons or been introduced to simple arithmetic before attending the pre-school.

“Consistently our students are much better prepared for school after graduation,” Walker said.

She highlighted that English as a Second Language (ESL) students were able, through the program, to receive early intervention at a crucial age.

“They now are able to understand and speak [English] and most don’t require additional ESL after the first year,” Walker said. “We can get special education services started early, so that before they start school they already are working because the longer you wait, the worse those problems become. Early intervention for speech, cognitive and occupational therapy is truly important.”

According to VDOE, the Appropriation Act states that “a local match of funds, based on the composite index of local ability-to-pay, is required to receive state funds” for Richmond County’s Pre-School program.

Although the department was not invited to make a special plea for funding, the matter will be open to the public during this Thursday’s budget hearing on May 2, at 7 p.m. where the total budget of $22,211,193 – a 3 percent increase over last year’s budget of $21,547,583 – will be open for comment.

Posted on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 2:01 pm