Virginian-Pilot: Norfolk school aims for investment in early education
By Sarah Hutchins
A new early childhood center planned in the Park Place neighborhood looks, from an architect's rendering, like a typical school. But when it opens next fall, it will be tasked with the unusual mission of educating policymakers as well as children.
A product of Elevate Early Education, a statewide advocacy group, the E3 School is part of an effort to grow public investment in preschool.
President Barack Obama is pushing for universal preschool and, closer to home, Norfolk school officials are working to expand the division's pre-K offerings.
The new school's advocates hope more comprehensive research will help build a case for additional support. The 12,000-square-foot center - funded by $10 million in philanthropic support, mostly from private donors - aims to serve about 100 kids and employ 26 teachers and staff.
Lisa Howard, Elevate Early Education's president, also served as president of Smart Beginnings South Hampton Roads, a successful nonprofit that worked to improve child care. As part of the E3 school, Howard wants to partner with Norfolk Public Schools to track how students enrolled in the pre-K program do over time. The results, she said, will prove "investment in early childhood education is the best investment in our education system."
It's easy to find critics of some early childhood programs like Head Start, but the National Institute for Early Education Research wrote that pre-K does produce "substantial long-term gains" for students enrolled in high-quality programs.
Faculty members at Old Dominion University also are researching the issue through the newly launched Virginia Early Childhood Policy Center, a program organizers say is the only one of its kind in the state.
The policy center is compiling existing information on early childhood programs and services in a report that can be shared with educators and legislators.
Right now the availability of information on early learning programs varies, making it hard to measure Virginia's offerings and effectiveness, said Peter Baker, one of the center's directors.
Over the years conversations about early childhood have changed, said Angela Eckhoff, the policy center's other director. There's no longer much debate over whether kids should go to preschool. Now it's all about quality and access.
Eckhoff said preschool programs help build on the academic and social skills children learn at home. The goal is for kids to enter school ready to learn, which requires they develop a host of abilities including sounding out letters and working in groups.
In Virginia, educators use a literacy assessment tool to gauge school readiness. In Norfolk last fall, 10.5 percent of kindergarten students screened were identified as "needing intervention," according to the Virginia Department of Education, a number that jumps to 13 percent statewide. Kids who participated in the state's Virginia Preschool Initiative were more prepared, the state found, with only 7 percent needing extra help.
Universal preschool is a goal in Norfolk, where Superintendent Samuel King has repeatedly talked about the challenge of bringing up to speed students entering the system with gaps. The division has about 2,270 students enrolled in 121 classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds, with many more on a waiting list.
Like other school divisions in the state, Norfolk receives money for some of its programs through Title I and the Virginia Preschool Initiative, which also requires local funding contributions.
Linda Sevigny, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, said that over the years the division has found itself trying to serve more families with the same or less money.
The division wants to grow its pre-K offerings until every family in the division can take advantage of them, Sevigny said, but two hurdles stand in the way: money and a state screening process.
The Preschool Initiative is designed to serve at-risk 4-year-olds not served by Head Start. Families apply and are screened for indicators that can include economic need, language barriers and even family incarceration. "They are very invasive-type questions," Sevigny said.
The division doesn't like the selection criteria but must use it to get funding. Preschool programs shouldn't be reserved for a select group of families, Sevigny said. Look around and it's easy to spot the need.
"All you have to do is drive through our communities at 11 a.m., and you'll find hundreds of kids who should be in pre-K programs," she said.
Sarah Hutchins, 757-446-2487, email@example.com