Up to 70 at-risk 4-year-olds will be placed in private preschool programs in the next two years thanks to a $250,000 preschool grant recently awarded by the state to the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area.

Grant funds also will support quality improvement programs for the partnered private preschools. The so-called mixed-delivery model means both public and private entities are working together.

The grant will be disbursed evenly across 2016 and 2017, with up to 30 mixed-delivery placements this year and up to 40 next year. Mixed-delivery placements also will be funded by United Way scholarship funds and Virginia Preschool Initiative funds.

“It’s not as simple as creating more access; we really need to be focusing on quality,” said Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the local United Way. “The emphasis is really on three things: emphasizing quality in the private preschool settings, incentivizing participation in quality initiatives and working to understand the barriers to participating in preschool.”

The emphasis on quality hearkens back to points raised by Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, at a June preschool symposium. Pianta explained that strong teacher-child interactions and an appropriate, engaging curriculum are key factors in ensuring that a preschool program actually prepares children for kindergarten.

The United Way has worked with ReadyKids to develop an accelerated quality improvement program for mixed-delivery preschools.

“What we know from a lot of research is that it takes sustained support for teachers to change their practice,” said Gail Esterman, Child Care Quality program manager at ReadyKids. “[The accelerated program] allows us to really get in there and give feedback on a weekly basis to a staff and to a director, and to … make sure they’re sustaining these practices.”

Esterman explained that quality improvement can mean many things. ReadyKids will look at the learning materials a program uses, the way teachers interact with children, how effectively teachers plan activities and even the layout of the physical space.

At the Jefferson Area Board for Aging’s Shining Star preschool, where most of the Albemarle County mixed-delivery placements will be made, ReadyKids helped rethink classroom design to improve the program overall.

“Our teachers want to leave up a folding wall — it was basically like a blackboard area,” explained Donna Baker, director of operations at JABA. “[ReadyKids] realized that was really a barrier. What was handy for teachers wasn’t necessarily best for the kids.”

“We took down that folding wall, and it’s opened up the classroom immensely,” Baker said. “We have set up more centers so that the focus really is on play and learning, not your more standard ‘sit in a circle and repeat the alphabet.’”

Pianta said in June that preschool programs needed to be thoroughly researched and evidence-based. One of the quality assessment tools used by ReadyKids, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, was developed by Pianta, and other assessments used by the organization are similarly backed by years of rigorous research.

“Our coaching is designed on increasing scores on those tools,” explained Esterman. “There’s so many ways to reach [positive] ends, but if you don’t understand child development, you’re not going to be doing it in the right way. A lot of these tools really get at how [teachers] are doing everything in the classroom.”

The incentives mentioned by Viccellio are necessitated by the cost and time-intensity of participating in quality improvement. Esterman explained that a lack of time and money for teacher to participate in ongoing training is often a barrier to a program’s quality.

“One of the things we’re talking about doing [with grant funds] is offering either financial incentives to teachers to take more training, or simply being able to pay their salary [while in training],” said Esterman. “It’s recognizing that in the early childhood world, salaries are low and there’s not a clear path to getting rewarded for better practices.”

The final priority Viccellio listed, determining barriers to preschool participation, stems from a considerable difference in the unmet need for preschool and the unmet demand. The United Way has identified 582 4-year-olds with risk factors and who are in need of preschool in Charlottesville and Albemarle.

Between 150 and 200 of them have no services yet and waiting lists for public programs like Bright Stars consist of only about 70 children, according to program coordinator Ann McAndrew.

“What we hope to do is a collaborative process with families to really explore the value of preschool, both trying to help demonstrate and learn together about how it can be helpful to the whole family unit, as well as understand what gets in the way,” Viccellio explained.

The United Way already has begun reaching out to eligible families on waiting lists for public preschool programs about mixed-delivery placements.

“We’re actually going to be serving up to 15 families this upcoming year. We’re doing tours for folks now,” said JABA’s Baker. “We love working with 4-year-olds. [Mixed-delivery] gives us a little more age diversity in our classroom, along with racial and ethnic diversity.”

Other placements will be made at Foundations Child Development Center and Piedmont Family YMCA, with additional partnerships in the works for next year.

Viccellio said the majority of this year’s placements should be completed by Aug. 23, when school starts.