CASTL Plays Vital Role in ‘Bold and Innovative’ VPI Plus

Virginia Preschool Initiative Logo

The Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) at the University of Virginia, will play a vital role in transforming Virginia’s existing State Preschool Program into a national exemplar. Late last year, the US Department of Education awarded the state with a 17,5 million expansion grant to fund a project called Virginia Preschool Initiative Plus (VPI+), that will allow the Commonwealth to serve as many as 3,000 additional at-risk four-year-olds in new, high quality classrooms annually. The US Department of Education praised Virginia for its ‘bold and innovative plan’. The project officially got underway this month, with a kick-off meeting in Richmond.

CASTL was named one of the pillars of the project when it was announced in December. The Lieutenant Governor’s office stated that ‘CASTL is arguably the nation’s most prestigious applied research center focused on early education teacher effectiveness and classroom quality’. CASTL will guide all professional development and classroom improvement methods within the project. CASTL’s director Jason Downer, associate director Bridget Hamre and implementation specialist Ann Lhospital will all contribute to make VPI Plus a success.

The new project is an extension of the existing Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI), a state-funded program that currently supports quality preschool programs for approximately 18,000 under privileged four-year-olds in the state. The expansion grant kicks the VPI in high gear; 11 school divisions across the state will reap the benefits of cutting edge educational research and a rigorous community outreach initiative designed to reach and help as many Pre-K children as possible. The effort will result in the establishment of dozens of new classrooms across the state and improvements of classroom practices in many existing VPI classrooms.

‘’It feels like we have been working toward this exciting project for the last ten years,’’ says Hamre, a lead scientist on the project. ‘’Much of the research CASTL has done over the last decade is being used in Virginia’s educational system. But we know that running highly effective early childhood programs is really complex. VPI+ will give us a chance to really map out the diverse needs of communities across the Commonwealth and ensure that we are drawing from the research to support these communities.’’

CASTL will focus on three main tasks during the four-year grant, Hamre explains. ‘’The first important thing to realize, is that the participating school divisions are faced with the daunting task of dealing with new curricula, new classrooms, new coaches and recruiting new students. In doing all that, we shouldn’t take our eyes of the prize: providing children with high quality classroom experiences and meaningful teacher-child interactions. So, one of our first tasks is providing consultation to the 11 school districts. We will guide them in the implementation of curricula and professional development methods, as well as collect data for analysis. Over time, that will let us what’s working and what’s not in a particular school or classroom.’’

Second, CASTL will support and train a group of new coaches, who will each be assigned to one of the 11 school divisions. These coaches will actively support teachers in the classroom, Ann Lhospital explains. “We’re designing the coach training around evidence-based practices that cut across different coaching models. This way, coaches across diverse divisions will have a common framework. Ultimately, I hope that VPI+ coaches will become a community of learners who support each other, sharing valuable knowledge about ‘what works’ in practice.’’

In order to really get the best professional development in place for every teacher, CASTL will also take the lead in creating a website to house a variety of existing professional development resources. ‘’Many of them are free; you just need to know where to find them,’’ says Hamre. ,In creating an online platform to access these resources, we’ll be able to make it easier for schools and teachers to choose a professional development method that fits.’’

“These online resources are not just available to the participating school divisions, but for anyone who is interested”, says Hamre. ‘’In doing so, we can help teachers everywhere.’’

If all goes well, VPI+ has the potential to re-shape the educational landscape in Virginia. Not only does it target over 3,000 children in new and existing classrooms over the course of four years; The project also aims to increase the number of slots in high quality preschool programs by 17 percent, and hopes to achieve a 15 percent reduction in the number of unserved at-risk four-year olds.

Hamre is happy the project is officially underway. ‘’The first two years we’ll be tweaking it here and there, it’s all about finding the right balance in dealing with different needs. But what I’m most happy about so far is that the 11 school divisions are very excited to get started. They know what’s at stake and how important it is to reach those children that are at-risk of falling behind.’’

Expectations are high. Senator and former Virginia Governor Mark Warner championed for the federal approval of the state’s request for funding, and stated earlier that VPI Plus will equip at-risk four-year-olds ‘with the critical skills they need for lifelong learning’.

Hamre looks beyond the borders of the state of Virginia. ‘’What we put in place here, could be an example for the rest of the country.’’

VPI Plus in numbers:

VPI Plus will:
- Run for the duration of 4 years
- Serve 11 school divisions in the Commonwealth
- Create over 70 new high quality classrooms annually by the fourth year, serving over 1,300 additional children
- Improve classroom quality in over 160 existing classrooms
- Reach over 3000 at-risk 4-year olds by the fourth year
- Aim for a 17 percent increase of available slots in High Quality Preschool programs
- Aim for a 15 percent reduction in the number of unserved at-risk four-year olds