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Preschool programs expand in Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — Thanks to a $17.5 million federal grant to Virginia’s pre-kindergarten program for low-income children, more than 1,200 additional children will be able to attend preschool in 11 high-needs school divisions beginning next school year. Henrico County is among the school systems that will benefit from the funding that the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded to the Virginia Preschool Initiative.

The Henrico County School Board voted unanimously last week to accept $2.5 million in grant money, with the aim of establishing 10 more VPI classrooms. This will go a long way toward helping the local VPI program meet demand, said John Montgomery, who chairs the School Board.

“We’ve put together every location and resource we can to support it, but there’s a limit of what can be done locally,” Montgomery said. “It’s undisputed and indisputable that the pre-K program provides a benefit for students. It’s been a real game-changer for a lot of kids, and we’re excited that that more kids will get those opportunities.”

Besides Henrico County, 10 other high-need localities will receive VPI grants:

  • Brunswick County
  • Chesterfield County
  • Fairfax County
  • Giles County
  • Prince William County
  • Sussex County
  • Norfolk
  • Petersburg
  • Richmond
  • Winchester.

They were selected for grant funding based on indicators including poverty, the number of Title I schools, the percentage of children entering kindergarten below the state’s literacy readiness benchmark and the number of unserved at-risk four-year-olds.

Together, the divisions are committed to establishing 88 new VPI classrooms during the 2015-16 school year and improving services for children in 94 existing preschool classes. It has been a challenge for some school systems to obtain VPI funding. Fast-growing counties such as Henrico, Chesterfield and Prince William often lack of classroom space for preschool programs.

Other localities, like Sussex County, have had trouble providing the local match needed to obtain state funding. Those issues have presented obstacles in the past, said Gail Jones, director of the Henrico County preschool program.

“Our K-12 population is growing so rapidly that our renovations are barely keeping up, even with new schools we’re building,” Jones said. “It’s not our lack of wanting the program. But the way VPI has been managed and allocated has needed to be reevaluated for the last few years.”

Jones isn’t the only one who feels that way. Many state legislators do, too. The General Assembly changed the way the VPI is managed when it approved amendments to the 2014-16 state budget in February. Among other things, lawmakers created a Joint Subcommittee on VPI Reform, which will present recommendations by Nov. 1. Whatever changes are made, Jones hopes preschoolers will get the help and resources they need to succeed as they get older.

“The results of a good pre-K education speak for themselves,” Jones said. “Every child deserves that opportunity.”

by Sean CW Korsgaard

Capital News Service is a flagship program of the VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.