CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Right now, every pre-kindergarten program in West Virginia is required to have a teacher and teacher's aide or assistant teacher.
However, only about half of those assistants have any certification beyond a high school diploma or the equivalent, said Clayton Burch, executive director for the state's office of early learning.
Guidelines set through a federal program could soon make that a problem, Burch told legislators Monday.
About 57 percent of pre-K classrooms in West Virginia use assistants provided by the federal Head Start program, Burch said. By 2013, Head Start is requiring all of its assistant teachers either to have at least an associate degree or be working toward one.
"Unless we add assistant teacher qualifications, we'll end up with an equity issue," Burch said during a legislative committee meeting on education.
An assistant teacher is crucial to early learning environments because that person is often the one who deals with problems during class, Burch said. If there is a behavior issue with one student or a child needs some one-on-one help during class, an assistant can tend to that student while the teacher continues to work with the remainder of the class.
"Assistant teachers serve a crucial role in the early childhood classroom," states a document Burch gave to legislators before the meeting. "Their interactions with children through relationships and daily instruction contribute to the overall quality of the program."
The state recommends requiring a child development associate degree, apprenticeship for child development specialist credential or something similar, Burch said. These parameters mirror the national guidelines proposed by Head Start officials.
Burch said the state Department of Education is committed to helping current aides and assistants earn these credentials through online or traditional coursework. The state is recommending the policy be phased in to give current aides and assistants time to meet the new requirements.
Burch said the department also would review credentialing at the kindergarten level.
Legislators at the meeting congratulated Burch, state Superintendent Jorea Marple and the department for its progress in pre-K programming. Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said legislators are proud of the department's pre-K efforts, noting the recent visit by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan to discuss the program.
West Virginia is fifth in the nation in providing access to preschool for 4-year-olds and fourth in overall spending, Burch said, citing data from the National Institute for Early Education Research.