(L-R) Ainsley Greer, Kendra Jackson, Virginia Mundy and Amira Lindsey do an activity to teach students about ocean life at JABA's preschool Credit: Credit: Tim Shea, Dexter Auction

Kaci Cromwell’s son Adrian started preschool in March. He is one of 20 children who were placed into private preschools through grants from the Virginia Preschool Initiative.

Cromwell had spent almost two years on waiting lists to get her son enrolled in a public preschool program.

“He was kind of put on the back burner because he wasn’t considered a needy child,” Cromwell said. “He had both parents, and neither of us are felons. And we don’t receive benefits, we just get Medicaid. He was potty-trained, he could count and talk, so [schools told us], ‘He doesn’t need to go to preschool until there’s an open spot for him.’”

Months dragged on and no spots opened. Cromwell worried that her son would not be prepared to start kindergarten. She felt preschool would help him develop crucial social skills and ease him into spending time away from parents and family members.

Adrian’s parents also work full-time, and finding child care became increasingly difficult.

“It came to the point where I would have to work during the day and his dad would have to work at night, just so his dad could be here on days that Adrian didn’t have anybody to watch him,” Cromwell said. “I did call around to a few [private] places to see about at least getting him into daycare … but some of the prices were outrageous to even consider.”

In February, with Adrian still on public preschool waiting lists, the $180,000 in Virginia Preschool Initiative grants came through. It took quick work on the part of several organizations to put the money into action.

“There was such a tight turnaround with both the grant deadline and then with the amount of time that the funds need to be expended, so it was a little bit challenging in terms of identifying families for whom this would work,” said Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area and chairwoman of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Early Education Task Force. “It was finding people where this works with their life situation at this given point.”

The task force approached Cromwell about sending Adrian to a private preschool, Foundations Child Development Center in Charlottesville. She didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.

“I was excited. I was like, ‘Oh my God, my baby, he’s getting to go to school!’” Cromwell said. “The day I got the call, I went up to the school and I talked to one of the owners and she gave me a tour. Everybody was really friendly.”

Starting school halfway through the year poses potential challenges. The other children had months to get to know each other, become friends and acclimate to the school environment.

Fortunately, Adrian quickly transitioned with little difficulty.

“He was a little shy at first, and I think it was a lot for him to take in because of always being with Mom or Dad or somebody close in the family,” Cromwell said. “But within the first week he was just rolling right with the other kids.”

The local United Way placed several other children at the Jefferson Area Board for Aging’s Shining Star preschool. Like Adrian, those children integrated into classrooms rapidly and seamlessly.

“The centers are not only agreeing to our children coming into their programs, they’re also agreeing to a rigorous mentoring, coaching and a quality improvement program.”

Erika Viccellio, United Way

“After a week, [you] couldn’t tell which kids were here the entire year and which ones had just started,” said Donna Baker, JABA’s director of operations. “The kids are young enough that they’re OK accepting new people. It was just another face.”

Parents whose children were selected for these mixed-delivery preschool programs also have received support from ReadyKids, a Charlottesville-based child advocacy organization.

Being in regular contact with a ReadyKids family coordinator made Cromwell more comfortable as Adrian started at Foundations.

“[The family coordinator] calls me at least once or twice a week and makes sure everything is going alright, that we don’t need anything and that the school is doing what they’re supposed to be doing with Adrian,” Cromwell said. “She came by my house and actually visited. She’s really good, very friendly.”

ReadyKids also worked closely with the partnering private preschools to ensure they met state quality standards.

“The centers are not only agreeing to our children coming into their programs,” Viccellio said. “They’re also agreeing to a rigorous mentoring, coaching and a quality improvement program.”

Foundations actually already had been part of ReadyKids’ Child Care Quality program for several years. The program emphasizes hands-on learning through play.

“When children have a rich, literacy-infused program and there’s lots of books and lots of conversation and ability to practice what they see around them through play, there’s all kinds of learning that takes place,” said Gail Esterman, ReadyKids’ CCQ program manager. “We’ve tried to help programs communicate that to the families so that they understand what the children are getting out of the program.”

These quality assurance and family support efforts seem to be working. Cromwell described Adrian’s time at Foundations as “an absolutely great experience,” and she said she feels confident that her son is now better prepared to start kindergarten in the fall.

Cromwell reflected on the preschool placement with gratitude and satisfaction.

“I think every child needs somewhere to start before they just get thrown into [kindergarten] with a whole bunch of kids,” she said. “It’s a great thing to hear from people that they get the opportunity to send their kid to school, instead of sitting on waiting lists.”

Looking to next year, mixed-delivery remains a likely method for increasing preschool enrollment. Viccellio acknowledged, however, that this approach does not address the long-term funding and facility space issues at the root of the problem.

John Morgan, former executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, has been brought in by the local United Way as a consultant on more sustainable funding methods for early childhood education. He will present his findings at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Early Education Task Force meeting June 15.

“We know that philanthropy is going to have to play a role for this to work, especially in the near-term while we figure out other ways to leverage larger dollars,” Viccellio said.

Though a mixed-delivery program funded by grants is a short-term solution, Cromwell attested to the fact that it can still have an incredible impact:

“Overall, [Adrian] was blessed to be able to get the opportunity to go to preschool.”