Richmond Public Schools must do better, by Mayor Levar M. Stoney

6/1/2023, 6 p.m.
To be a city where everyone has a fair shot to thrive, we must support our youngest residents and those …

To be a city where everyone has a fair shot to thrive, we must support our youngest residents and those who care for them.

Over 90 percent of brain development occurs before a child’s fifth birth- day, with the most significant explosion of growth occurring before the age of 3.

If we were to align public policies and public investments with science, then we wouldn’t wait until the first day of school to support our children with coordinated, comprehensive services.

That’s why I proposed, and City Council approved, that $2 million of the City’s American Rescue Plan dollars be invested into child care and Richmond families. Under the purview of the City’s Office of Children and Families, those dollars have supported:

•Expanding access to child care and preschool in licensed community providers of early child care and education programs, creating over 250 new slots across the city;

•Expanding home visiting services to connect families with children un- der age 5 to parenting education and coordinated health and dental care;

•Purchasing diapers for the city’s diaper bank;

•Purchasing safe sleep spaces, car seats and strollers for families in need.

It’s also why I committed to laying the groundwork for universal preschool when I won re-election in 2020. Universal preschool will ensure that every single 3- and 4-year-old in Richmond has access to a high-quality, full-day, full-year preschool program that will set them up for success and support their families.

This summer, we will receive a “cost model” report from the Children’s Funding Project, which surveyed early child care and education programs across Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield to determine how much universal preschool will cost.

Early results indicate that projected costs will pace with national trends; we suspect that it will cost roughly $12,000 to $20,000 per child to offer every 3- and 4-year-old in Richmond a slot in a licensed, full-day, full-year preschool program. With roughly 2,000 children entering kindergarten at Richmond Public Schools every year, universal preschool could cost $40 to $80 million annually.

That’s why it is crucial that Richmond Public Schools partner with the city as we embark on this effort to combat the early learning opportunity gaps. RPS administers the federal Head Start and Early Head Start grants, as well as the state’s Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI). While Head Start targets children in families at 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), VPI funds preschool for children in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the FPL in addition to children who meet locally established criteria. Ultimately both of these funding sources, together, should cover most of the costs for preschool for all children at risk of entering kindergarten behind.

But to achieve universal preschool in Richmond, we must maximize every penny at our disposal. We can’t burden taxpayers to pay for a preschool slot that is already funded by taxpayer dollars through another program.

Yet RPS enrolled just 592 4-year-olds in VPI this school year, despite the Virginia Department of Education initially allocating 1,027 slots to Richmond. That’s just flat out unacceptable. We’re leaving money on the table and hundreds of children behind. RPS must do better. While the Head Start grant funds 714 slots for 3- and 4-year-olds, just 526 total children were enrolled in programs last year. And while the city is researching how to universalize full-day, full-year programs, last summer the School Board voted to end the preschool day at 1:45 p.m.; preschool operates on a traditional school year with a summer break.

Given critical, urgent issues such as absenteeism, pandemic learning loss and teacher shortages, it would make sense that the RPS administration and the School Board would embrace the offered support of the City in a collaborative effort to ensure that every RPS child has the opportunity to receive a world-class education.

I believe that every single child has the God-given potential to succeed in life. It’s a matter of opportunity, and I am committed to closing opportunity gaps wherever possible. Every single child in Richmond, regardless of income, deserves access to high-quality early learning experiences. Every family deserves the peace of mind and financial security that comes with knowing that their little ones are in a high-quality, full-day, full-year preschool program. It is time we collaborate on a better way forward for our kids.