Mary Stebbins, deputy director of Albemarle County’s Department of Social Services, gave the Board of Supervisors an update on the Bright Stars preschool program. Credit: Credit: Sean Tubbs, Dexter Auction
Albemarle County’s Bright Stars preschool program could need one or two more classrooms to meet demand from families next year.
Mary Stebbins, deputy director of Albemarle’s Department of Social Services, said the county has identified 323 children who will be eligible for the Bright Stars program this fall — 25 more than it identified in 2017.
“It was a significant jump,” Stebbins said.
While other public preschool programs for 4-year-olds in the Charlottesville area saw their enrollment decline slightly this year, Bright Stars started the current school year at its full enrollment of 187 students.
Stebbins said a $16.3 million addition to Woodbrook Elementary and subsequent redistricting is expected to result in a net gain of three classrooms for area preschool programs next year. She said at least one classroom likely would be reserved for Bright Stars.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Stebbins presented and fielded questions about Bright Stars’ annual report for the 2017 fiscal year.
Bright Stars operates in three classrooms at Cale Elementary; two each at Greer and Agnor-Hurt; and one each at Red Hill, Scottsville, Stone Robinson and Woodbrook.
Bright Stars eliminated a classroom at Stony Point Elementary in 2017 in order to open one at Agnor-Hurt. Children eligible for Bright Stars who are districted for Stony Point can be bused to the classroom at Stone Robinson.
“There was a lot of need in the [county’s] urban ring that needed to be served,” Stebbins said.
About 83 percent of last year’s Bright Stars students were from economically disadvantaged households. About 45 percent lived in single-parent households; 42 percent had at least one parent who did not finish high school; and 10 percent were from families with all caretakers unemployed.
Last school year, the number of students entering Bright Stars with limited English proficiency decreased for the first time in several years. English Language Learners made up 41.7 percent of the Bright Stars student population last school year, down from 43 percent in 2015-16.
Bright Stars used $52,063 in grant funding from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation last year to place 17 waitlisted students in private preschools, including the Foundations Child Development Center and the Shining Stars Preschool operated by the Jefferson Area Board for Aging. The Mixed Delivery Grant funds were administered by the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area’s Early Education Task Force.
While Bright Stars classrooms are supervised by certified teachers, private preschools participating in the mixed-delivery initiative are not required to have certified teachers.
Supervisor Norman Dill asked if students placed in private preschools experienced equally positive outcomes as those in Bright Stars classrooms. Stebbins said it was difficult to compare the two groups of students.
“We place the highest-risk kids in our schools,” Stebbins said. “We value our program a lot, and so we tend to keep our highest-risk kids.”
Bright Stars administers a Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening test for students at the beginning and end of each school year. The assessment measures how well children understand the alphabet, letter sounds and rhymes and demonstrate awareness of how pictures and words work together in a story.
The percentage of Bright Stars students passing the PALS test rose from 12 percent upon entering preschool in fall 2016 to 66 percent in spring 2017. The spring pass rate was slightly higher than the previous year, but still below the program’s goal of 80 percent.
The percentage of Bright Stars students demonstrating desired numeracy skills rose from 17 percent in the fall to 77 percent in the spring.
Stebbins said the family coordinators assigned to each Bright Stars classroom have succeeded in increasing parents’ engagement with the program.
Eighty-four percent of Bright Stars parents attended semi-annual parent-teacher conferences, up from 80 percent in 2015-16. Ninety-six percent of parents attended four additional functions organized by Bright Stars or their host school, up from 86 percent the previous year.
“We very much value parent participation, as it lays the groundwork for continued involvement in their child’s education,” Stebbins said. “This is a critical factor in ameliorating the risk of school failure.”
In a survey, 90 percent of Bright Stars parents reported improvements in their child’s problem-solving, language and social skills over the course of the year.
Supervisor Ned Gallaway said he applauded Bright Stars’ focus on social-emotional development.
“I know the [Albemarle County] school system is focusing on that now,” he said. “The focus is incredibly important through the whole school experience.”
Bright Stars has an operating budget of $1.47 million for the current fiscal year.
Albemarle’s Bright Stars coordinator, Ann McAndrew, retired earlier this month. Stebbins said in an interview that the Department of Social Services was interviewing candidates and hopes to hire McAndrew’s successor in March.
Families with children who will be 3 or 4 by Sept. 30 can fill out a joint application for Bright Stars, Charlottesville City Schools’ preschool program and the Monticello Area Community Action Agency’s Head Start program. Applications can be downloaded from the websites of city and county elementary schools or picked up at those schools or at MACAA.
The deadline for priority consideration is March 1. Families who need assistance completing the application should contact their neighborhood elementary school or MACAA.

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.