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W.Va. state education officials vow to improve upon universal pre-K successes

Steven Allen Adams IMPROVEMENTS — Members of the West Virginia Board of Education heard a report about the state’s successful pre-Kindergarten program Wednesday.

CHARLESTON — While lawmakers on Capitol Hill weigh a proposal to expand universal pre-Kindergarten nationwide, West Virginia has led the way for nearly 20 years. State education officials plan to improve upon that success.

The West Virginia Board of Education heard a report Wednesday from State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch and Monica DellaMea, director of Early and Elementary Learning Services at the Department of Education, on school readiness for 4-year-olds in West Virginia.

“For nearly two decades now, legislation has been in place that focuses not just on access for all 4-year olds and all 3-year-olds with disabilities whose families want to enroll them, but also quality to ensure that some of this state’s youngest learners receive the highest quality services,” DellaMea said. “This has resulted in West Virginia being a national leader in the provision of universal pre-K services.”

According to the department’s strategic plan, 84 percent of the state’s 4-year-old children are enrolled in West Virginia’s universal pre-K program in 2021. Education officials want to improve on those numbers, setting a goal of making sure all 4-year-olds have access to the universal pre-K program.

“Ultimately, what happens in universal pre-K and in those early grades impacts children later on,” DellaMea said. “There is a huge body of research that speaks to the fact that children who receive high universal pre-K services in their time … are less likely to need remediation later on and more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be incarcerated or need public assistance later on.”

West Virginia has offered universal pre-K since 2002, though earlier legislation gave county school boards the ability to offer preschool since 1983 according to a history of pre-K put together by the Department of Education.

State Code required every county board of education, with assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services, ensure access to universal pre-K by the 2012-2013 school year. Counties can also collaborate with existing Head Start programs and other licensed childcare programs. As of 2021, all 55 counties have universal pre-K programs, with more than 11,000 4-year-olds plus 3-year-old children with disabilities.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2020 State of Preschool Yearbook, West Virginia ranked eighth out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., for states with the best early education system, ranking sixth for access, fourth for all reported spending, and meeting nine out of 10 benchmarks.

“We are very highly ranked nationally,” DellaMea said. “We’re one of few states to meet nine out of 10 in the nation.”

The $1.75 trillion Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill being put together by the U.S. House of Representatives would including six years of funding for nationwide universal pre-K, including for all children age three and up.

Wednesday’s presentation is part of a plan by Burch, Assistant Superintendent Jan Barth, and other Department of Education officials to inform state board members on parts of its 2021 strategic plan, with each monthly board meeting focusing on a different part of the strategic plan.

“Dr. Barth is actually going to bring here soon a year-long proposal for the state Board of Education to consider, which will breakdown the strategic plan into a year-long series so that every board meeting we would begin the board meeting with a piece of the strategic plan and what is happening at the department to drive it,” Burch said.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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