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Governor's all-day preschool plan could leave facilities in a bind

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Mimi Davis' Ruffner Elementary School classroom is bright, airy and kid-friendly.

Two computers sit on low tables, the walls are filled with indiscernible paintings on construction paper, and there's plenty of free space for floor sitting and movement.

For three and a half hours each day, more than a dozen preschool-aged children are at home there. They eat a meal, play, do some learning and maybe some dancing  - and then they're packed up and sent home for the rest of the day.

By next year, that could change.

If Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has his way, those children, and many of the more than 14,000 children enrolled in state preschool programs across West Virginia, will spend a full day in the classroom.

In last week's education-heavy State of the State address, Tomblin said he would introduce legislation requiring every county to offer full-day preschool for 4-year-olds within three years.

At Ruffner, and other schools around the state, that would effectively double the size of the pre-school program. After Davis' morning class leaves, another comes in for an afternoon session. To accommodate all those children on a full-day schedule would require another classroom, teacher and assistant teacher.

"We couldn't do it here," Davis said.

The move could cause logistical problems in school districts where the state programs are built on a half-day model. That's primarily in Kanawha, Berkeley and Jefferson counties, according to Clayton Burch, executive director for the state Department of Education's Office of Early Learning.

When it implemented a state preschool system a decade ago, the state left it up to local school districts to build their programs as they saw fit. Now, if Tomblin's mandate is approved, it will be up to those districts to find resources for full-day programs.

The call for full-day preschool is not as revolutionary as it may appear.

West Virginia already has state-funded preschool in every county - a program that began in legislation a decade ago and reached full implementation this year, with every county school system offering a public preschool program available to all 4-year-olds.

An estimated 65 to 68 percent of West Virginia's 4-year-olds are enrolled in those programs, with another chunk of the population in federally funded Head Start programs for children from low-income homes.

However, about 19 percent of those children are in half-day programs. And around 5 percent have schedules somewhere between the half-day and full-day models - they're in the classroom from 16 to 23 hours each week.

There's scant evidence that the extra hours of instruction provided by full-day preschool programs are actually all that beneficial, but Diane Early, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who studies preschool quality, said that may just be because of a lack of evidence.

Research has shown children reaping benefits from full-day kindergarten programs, and it's not a stretch to assume similar benefits could come earlier in childhood, she said.

"Rather than how much time they spend in school, I like to think about what they would be doing with the other half of their day," Early said. "Sometimes school is the best environment for them to be in."

And officials say Tomblin's proposed mandate is mainly a way to reach out to working parents for whom full-day programs are more convenient than the half-day alternative. By making preschool more accessible, officials hope to increase enrollment.  

Experts estimate that state preschool programs reach peak enrollment when around 80 percent of the eligible population is enrolled (around 20 percent are bound to end up in private preschool programs, or have parents who don't approve of preschool).

Burch said he and other state officials aspire to that 80 percent benchmark. That could mean that the counties without full-day programs are flooded with additional students in the coming years.

But even if they have to scramble to find space for those extra students, county school districts shouldn't have to scramble for funding. West Virginia is one of only a handful of states that fund preschool programs through the state aid funding formula - meaning the funding burden falls on the state, not local school districts.

And preschool is expensive: the state spent more than $82 million to fund preschool in 2011, or about $5,600 per child. That's well above the national average of $4,296, a fact that has garnered praise for the state from national preschool advocates.

And West Virginia's preschool program has largely escaped the budget crunch reported in many other states, in part because of a bet taken by legislators when they built the program a decade ago.

Lloyd Jackson, a state school board member and former state senator, was one of the authors of the legislation that created the program.

"We understood that funding for these programs is always difficult," Jackson said. "But we can be very deliberative, very upfront, very smart about these programs."

They took a bet based on the trend of declining enrollment in West Virginia's schools - a trend that continues today.

"The idea was to match the decline in student enrollment to the influx of preschool kids," Jackson said, so that the state would pay out a relatively steady stream of funds to the local school districts, even as preschoolers came into the system.

So far, that has played out as expected.

Last year, Jackson said, they were within 200 students of an exact match. Officials hope a continuing decline in enrollment will leave room for the state to continue to fund preschool programs at the same level.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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