Maryfrances Porter asks a question from the audience during an early learning and education summit hosted by Collectbritain and the United Way at the Jefferson School on Thursday. Credit: Credit: Ryan M. Kelly / The Daily Progress

The demand for access to high-quality preschool for the area’s most-at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds is outpacing the supply that Charlottesville and Albemarle County public schools can provide.

Currently, about 250 4-year-olds in the city and county need pre-K education, the United Way – Thomas Jefferson Area estimates.

To discuss that need and related issues, a group of approximately 80 community members — elected officials; government, school and non-profit leaders; and members of the business community — packed the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center Thursday. The event was sponsored jointly by the United Way and Collectbritain.

“We have kids who were born into incredibly difficult circumstances, who are not receiving a lot of the benefits that many of us were given as youngsters,” said Mike Chinn, president of SNL Financial and chair of the School Readiness Impact Team — an offshoot of the United Way that advocates for high-quality preschool opportunities.

“Getting them ready for school,” he added, “equipping them with what they need to be competitive with their peers is simply the right thing to do.”

While the morning saw local leaders conversing about a local issue, one of the most poignant comments came from a pre-K expert from out of town.

“This community has the resources, though I can’t help but notice a sense of paralysis,” said Kathy Glazer, president of the Virginia Early Childhood Education Foundation.

Bob Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, agreed.

“I’ve been part of conversations about pre-K in this community for about 30 years, and we’re kind of still having the same conversation,” Pianta said.

Frank Friedman, president of Piedmont Virginia Community College, echoed the call for action.

“I think it’s important to bite off something we can achieve, maybe not solve all the problems, but that can move us forward a step or two,” Friedman said. “If we can agree that addressing [the access issue] is the first step … we can create an action plan.”

And the achievable action plan, Glazer said, could be serving the 250 children most in need.

“You as a community can set that target,” Glazer said. “You can rally the community around this particular issue.”

Chinn said the number of children missing out on a high-quality pre-K program could be as many as 500 if a broader set of risk factors were used.

Currently, Albemarle County schools offers preschool to qualifying 4-year-olds through Title I and Head Start, both federally funded programs, as well as through Bright Stars, a locally funded program run in part with Albemarle’s Department of Social Services.

Charlottesville also offers preschool for eligible 4-year-olds. Additionally, the division invests local dollars to run a program for 3-year-olds.

Both Pam Moran, Albemarle’s school superintendent, and Rosa Atkins, superintendent of Charlottesville schools, said the programs benefit their students.

“We see that our students make great gains after being in our 3- and 4-year-old programs,” Atkins said. “We hear from our teachers that when they compare kindergartners who have had our preschool program to kindergartners who have not had such an experience, … there’s a huge gap in the readiness for kindergarten between those two groups of students.”

Atkins also said that children who arrive in kindergarten with no preschool experience are about two years behind those who have attended preschool, and noted that the division’s kindergarten teachers say it takes about six weeks to integrate an inexperienced student into a class.

In the 2011-12 cohort of city students, 48 percent of 4-year olds passed the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, compared to 90 percent in the spring. Now second graders, 75 percent of them continue to meet benchmarks scores on the assessment.

In Albemarle, Bright Stars alumni are making strides as well. Only 19 percent of 4-year-olds passed PALS in the fall of 2013, but that number jumped to 68 percent in the spring of 2014. What’s more, when taking PALS in kindergarten the following year, 86 percent of Bright Stars alumni met benchmarks.

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel, a former School Board member, said the schools can’t solve the problem alone.

“Maybe [the University of Virginia] would be a great partner in this discussion,” McKeel said. “I’d like to hear more about what we could to do to all work together to solve this problem and not just rely on the two school divisions.”

The current model of pre-K in both school divisions serves students in their home elementary schools. Schools officials in Albemarle have said that doing so builds relationships and eliminates transitions.

Because a growing preschool-age population has been identified in the Southwood Mobile Home Park, Jane Dittmar, chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, asked Moran if she preferred serving those students at a satellite facility or in their home schools.

Moran said that the division’s top choice would be to house preschool classrooms in the home schools.

“But I think we’re really open to looking at some other options,” Moran said. “Particularly if you can’t build your program because of the bricks-and-mortar issue.”

As the two localities continue to tackle the growing pre-K problem, Pianta challenged the community to “refresh our sense of what’s possible.”

Among other suggestions, Pianta recommended that, whatever course Charlottesville and Albemarle take, they think across jurisdictional lines and that a system be coherent and have a strong leader.

“The funding comes in fragments, and if the programs mirror those fragments, then the problem isn’t addressed,” he said.

SNL’s Chinn said that the attention around Charlottesville-Albemarle’s preschool access issue is mounting.

“The conversation around this has elevated, and the pressure around this has elevated,” Chinn said. “We should be able to do this.”