REACH: Accessing Quality Early Learning

Head Start

Created in 1965, Head Start is a federally-funded, locally-based program intended to promote the healthy development and school readiness of disadvantaged children.76 Most Head Start funds are targeted to families in poverty, with 10% of resources allocated to serving children who have special needs or are eligible for special education services, regardless of family income.77

The important set of services offered through Head Start include education (spanning language and literacy learning, cognition and general knowledge, physical development, and social and emotional learning); services focused on health, dental health, and nutrition; social services; and opportunities for parents to become involved in the program and their children’s learning. Head Start preschool programs serve children between the ages of 3 or 5 primarily in center-based classrooms and sometimes in family care settings or through home visiting. Head Start also encompasses the Early Head Start program, which serves pregnant women and their children up to age 3.78

For most of the past 7 years, Head Start and Early Head Start programs have enrolled close to 16,000 children, primarily ages 3-5.

In their 2012 annual report, the Virginia Head Start Association reported that upon entering Head Start in the fall, less than 45% of children had important skills needed for kindergarten, but, by contrast, more than 80% of the children enrolled Virginia’s Head Start programs met school readiness measures by the spring of 2012 in the areas of fine motor skills, self-regulation, persistence and attentiveness, and phonological awareness, and that 77% met readiness measures in reasoning and problem solving skills.79

Number of children served in Head Start and Early Head Start, Virginia 2006-2012

SOURCE: Kids Count Data Center, Head Start Enrollment by Age Group,558,559,1831,122/12570

Part B (Preschool Special Education)

IDEA Part B provides special education instructional services specifically designed to meet the educational and developmental needs of children with disabilities, or those who are experiencing developmental delays. Services for preschool children (ages 3 through 5) are provided free of charge through the public school system, as required by IDEA.

According to VDOE, which administers IDEA in Virginia, services needed to establish goals, service settings and support personnel needed to assist children grow are different for each child. Staff from local programs, with the child’s family, develops an individualized plan with goals and objectives to meet the child’s developmental needs. As a result, services children receive will appropriately vary based on children’s needs, age, and program. The long-term term goal for IDEA Part B services is for preschool aged children to be as ready as possible to enter kindergarten.

As of December, 2012, the count of children ages 2 through 5 assisted by Part B services in Virginia was 16,610.

Title I

Title I, a provision of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is a program administered by the U.S. Department of Education to distribute funding to schools and school districts with a high percentage of students from low-income families. Funding is distributed first to state education agencies, which then allocate funds to local education agencies (LEAs), which in turn dispense funds to public schools in need.80 Title I also helps children from families that have migrated to the United States and youth from intervention programs who are neglected or at risk of abuse. In addition, Title I appropriates money to the education system to support dropout prevention efforts and the improvement of schools.81

School leaders can use Title I funds to support prekindergarten education, which ESEA defines as, “a program of educational services for eligible children below the age at which the LEA provides elementary education and is focused on raising the academic achievement of children once they reach school age.”82 According to the Pew Center on the States:

Title I funds are extremely flexible and can be used by districts and schools to support multiple components of kindergarten programs, including teacher salaries, professional development, comprehensive services (health, nutrition and other social services), leasing and minor remodeling of facilities, identifying children in need of more intensive services, family engagement initiatives, counseling and diagnostic screenings. Funds may also be used to develop data systems and implement curricula that are aligned with state early learning standards.83
In 2012/13, 41 school divisions offered preschool with Title I funds, serving 4,287 children.84

Currently, Virginia’s data systems are not structured to determine whether these children are served exclusively by Title I programs, or, whether these 41 school divisions are effectively blending Title I, VPI, and other funds (e.g., Part B, local funds) to serve more children while meeting the quality standards required of multiple programs. Having this information – which would provide an unduplicated count of children served through various preschool programs – would enable the state and local communities to determine whether the various programs available are reaching eligible children and how to best use available resources to maximize services provided to children, particularly those who are at risk of reaching kindergarten without school-ready skills.

Virginia Preschool Initiative

The Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) is an evidence-based state-funded preschool program for at-risk four year olds. The Virginia Department of Education distributes state funds to schools and local government that are matched by the locality to provide quality preschool programs for at-risk four year olds not served by Head Start. Comprehensive studies of the VPI program are currently limited to their literacy and retention outcomes in kindergarten and first grade. Nonetheless, independent studies have concluded that children who participate in VPI programs are less likely to be retained in kindergarten and are more likely to meet or exceed the minimum literacy competencies children need to be on track to read by the end of kindergarten85 and first grade86 compared to similar children who did not participate in VPI.

Children from economically disadvantaged families in Virginia who participated in publicly-funded preschool were found less likely to be identified as needing additional reading intervention services (compared to other economically disadvantaged children who did not participate in publicly funded preschool) and that these children are more likely to pass the third grade state Standards of Learning tests.87

VPI incorporates quality preschool; partnerships with parents; health screening; referrals and follow-ups; links to social services; and transportation. State funding is required to be matched by the locality using an allocation formula that estimates the percentage of children eligible for free lunch (less than 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level) out of the total projected kindergarten enrollment for the coming year minus the number of four-year-olds served in Head Start. Local match is determined by the composite index estimating local ability to pay, applied to a per pupil rate of $6,000 per student (total state and local share per child for a full school day). Local match must be 75% cash and may include in-kind up to 25%.

In 2012-13, 16,618 four-year-olds were served out of the total number eligible (23,443), leaving 6,825 eligible children unserved.

Virginia Star Quality Initiative (VSQI)

Like a rapidly growing number of states around the country, Virginia offers early care and education (ECE) settings the opportunity to participate in a state quality rating and improvement system, or QRIS – an organized way of assessing, improving and communicating the level of quality in ECE settings. A QRIS is designed not only to accurately measure the levels of quality in child care settings, but to make this information available to families in a way that helps them become informed consumers and select high quality early education options for their young children.

In Virginia, ECE programs that are part of the state’s QRIS, known as the Virginia Star Quality Initiative (VSQI), are rated on a five-star scale of increasing quality based on how well they meet four broad standards that reflect both research knowledge about the elements of high-quality ECE services and best ECE practices: 1) education, qualifications and training of staff; 2) the quality of interactions between children and their teachers and peers; 3) staff-to-child ratios and group size; and 4) program environment and instructional practices. Public and private settings that volunteer to participate in the QRIS submit document evidence of their quality, and receive an on-site assessment by trained and experienced Star Quality Raters, who are regularly tested for the consistency and reliability of their assessments. VSQI administrators use information from the documentation review and scores from on-site assessments to determine which star level a facility receives.

In another very important feature of the QRIS, participating sites are not only rated but are offered valuable supports for their efforts to improve and sustain their quality. Leaders from rated programs work with Star Quality Mentors to create and implement quality improvement plans. These plans focus on improving areas of weakness and sustaining strengths identified in the rating process. VSQI provides programs with an on-site coach to facilitate successful improvement strategy implementation. In addition, the QRIS offers rated programs incentives to support professional development and to purchase materials to help them meet improvement goals prior to being re-rated two years later.

Research suggests that when ECE settings focus on improvements in the four quality areas prioritized by Virginia’s QRIS, these quality improvement efforts yield positive outcomes – including better school readiness – for children. And the strong and growing interest in QRISs both in Virginia and around the country indicates that these systems have strong potential for helping parents choose settings that meet quality standards; for helping donors, legislators and taxpayers know when they are investing in quality services; and for giving ECE programs clear roadmaps that help them understand what they need to do to sustain and improve their quality.

There are 341 classroom-based sites and 77 family child care homes participating in this voluntary quality improvement initiative, serving more than 15,000 children.

The average star rating among participating sites is 3 stars (of a maximum 5 stars). The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and the Virginia Department of Social Services’ Office of Early Childhood Development work in partnership to serve as the Hub for administration of VSQI and coordinate state-level activities such as establishing consistent procedures for conducting ratings and reviewing and scoring documentation submitted by programs. Local early childhood initiatives or organizations work with the Hub to coordinate local activities like program recruitment and play an important role in delivering incentives and quality improvement services. As of July 1, 2013, 21 local early childhood initiatives organized themselves into 8 regions, facilitating statewide availability of the QRIS.

After several years of experience with piloting the Virginia Star Quality Initiative, the Hub convened a work group to begin the process of revising the system in ways that will make it more sustainable, less cumbersome, and more strategic in supporting quality in early learning settings.

An updated strategic plan including recommendations for revisions will be finalized in Fall 2013.

PDF version of official printed report.

View risk, reach and results data by county and city using our interactive map tool.

» Visit the map tool