Over the last twenty years, schools throughout Southwest Virginia have taken great advantage of the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) to help thousands of young children prepare for Kindergarten. This year the General Assembly passed new regulations for child eligibility for VPI. Many schools worry that these new regulations may force them to reduce the number of children that they can serve in their preschools.
At the suggestion of one of our Delegates, Smart Beginnings called together school and Head Start representatives to discuss these regulations. Dr. Mike Robinson, Superintendent of Smyth County Schools and Chair of the regional superintendents group, invited superintendents and Head Start Directors. On June 30, representatives from nine school districts and six Head Start systems joined Smart Beginnings to discuss concerns about the new regulations. We recorded concerns from all programs that these regulations might prevent our communities from serving children most at risk and that the limits might force some schools as well as some Head Start programs to close whole classrooms for four-year-olds.
The group developed a joint statement regarding VPI eligibility. That regional statement agreed that low income children should be given top priority for admission into VPI but that the state should give localities some flexibility so that they can enroll other children with identified high risk indicators. Other states have created criteria that do just that. North Carolina’s and Tennessee’s criteria emphasize priority for low income students while providing some local flexibility.
Dr. Robinson and Dr. Brenda Hess, Superintendent of Russell County Public Schools traveled to Richmond with Buckey Boone of Smart Beginnings Southwest Virginia to deliver the region’s message to a Joint Sub-Committee of the General Assembly. Dr. Robinson pointed out the problems that the new criteria might cause rural schools. Dr. Hess noted that many young at-risk children – for example, children living with grandparents because their parents are incarcerated – might be ineligible.
Both delegates and senators on the Sub-Committee responded positively to the comments by Dr. Robinson and Hess and suggested that the Sub-Committee should look for ways to make the eligibility criteria more flexible.