Virginia Preschool Initiative Plus Significantly Impacts School Community

By Rachel Chapdelaine

An early childhood education program in Virginia helped improve children’s school readiness and strengthen supports and relationships within school communities

Virginia’s young children are now in a better position to succeed in school and life. According to an evaluation study, Virginia Preschool Initiative Plus (VPI+), an early childhood education program aimed to support children’s development of key school readiness skills, produced significant, positive outcomes for children and helped to build stronger, more supportive relationships within school communities.

With more than 90 percent of brain development occurring before age 5, early childhood is a critical time to help children develop the foundational skills needed to succeed in school. Children who do not have access to preschool often miss out on enriching social and academic opportunities during some of their most impressionable years. 

To increase access to high-quality preschool for Virginia’s most vulnerable children, the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), a center within the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, partnered with the Department of Education on state and federal levels to establish the VPI+ program.

Preparing Children for Kindergarten

An SRI International evaluation study found that, over the past four years, more than 13,000 children across 13 diverse, high-need school divisions received high-quality early education experiences. The study found significant, positive outcomes for children in the program, including enhanced kindergarten entry skills and accelerated growth in preschool learning and development within and across years — the equivalent of receiving an extra 3.4 months of math learning and 8.8 months of literacy skills to prepare them for kindergarten.;

The program helped close gaps for dual language learners during an opportune time. “Quality preschool helps close the achievement gap shown between at-risk children and their more advantaged peers. Given gaps are shown as early as infancy, it serves us well to intervene before school entry,” said Ann Lhospital, a research scientist at CASTL and a primary investigator for VPI+.

VPI+ focuses on growing trusting relationships between teachers and children through emotionally supportive interactions. According to Lhospital, a strong teacher-child relationship is essential to the success of the child. “Research and practice show us that children need effective instruction and interactions to promote children’s thinking skills, self-regulation, social-emotional skills, language and literacy development,” she said. 

Working With Families

While the relationships between teachers and students are important to children’s progress, families also play a vital role in children’s healthy development and learning. VPI+ teachers worked to build strong relationships with families by sharing progress and ideas to support children’s learning experiences across settings, from the home to the classroom.

A prime example is the story of Angel, a four-year-old student who participated in VPI+ at Thelma Crenshaw Elementary. At the beginning of the year, Angel was shy and had difficulty identifying letters and numbers. As a supplement to class lessons, Tetlow suggested that Olinda encourage Angel to look for items that contain a particular letter while grocery shopping. Gaining experience in a supportive preschool setting and practicing skills outside of school helped Angel grow his confidence and the foundational skills he was struggling to learn. 

“Caregivers — children’s first teachers — must be engaged as a full partner in children’s education. Angel and his mother speak to the power of quality PreK and to the outstanding teachers and leaders who provide the kinds of interactions and instruction that support the whole child,” Lhospital said.

VPI+ teachers engaged families in multiple ways. For example, all teachers reported sending home activities to support children’s learning, and more than 80 percent reported sending notes home, visiting families’ homes, meeting with families to get their input on their children’s learning and/or inviting families to help out in the classroom, according to a VPI+ report.

Knowing that families need access to essential resources to support children’s growth and academic success, VPI+ leaders worked to build relationships and connect families with community resources. “We heard stories of families getting needed food, jackets in the wintertime, access to long-overdue health care and adult education services. This program helped meet the needs of these kids, their siblings and their caregivers so the children were supported, healthy and ready to learn in school,” Lhospital said.

Supporting Teachers’ Development and Practice

Every year, 15 percent of U.S. early childhood educators leave the field — leaving children without experienced, qualified teachers.

“To off-set this troubling rate of turnover, we must assure all teachers can access, and receive ongoing support to implement, enriching, engaging, and evidence-based curricula,” said Amanda Williford, a research associate professor at the Curry School. “We must press our university preparation programs and childcare centers to equip future educators with the research-based competencies they need to support the development of our youngest children.”

VPI+ did just that — it supported teachers through individualized, data-driven professional development (PD) and coaching.

VPI+ found that the PD and coaching were effective at providing support and influencing practice. Nearly all teachers (90-95 percent) reported that their coach provided helpful feedback and resources and was supportive and knowledgeable, and most teachers (75-86 percent) said they changed their practices as a result of coaching.

With guidance from coaches, VPI+ teachers implemented evidence-based curricula and formative assessments to support student learning and regularly evaluate each student’s engagement and progression. “Teachers need ongoing information on how children are learning so they can continually differentiate their instruction,” Lhospital said. ”Assessment data and feedback from coaches helped teachers adapt activities and tailor effective interactions to meet the individual needs of all children in the classroom.”

Informing Leaders’ Decisions

Early childhood programs cannot succeed without strong supports for and relationships with leaders — the coordinators, coaches and school administrators who support educators and make programs run smoothly. Leaders need ongoing training and support to guide data use, ongoing continuous improvement and planning of effective professional development. 

To help leaders, VPI+ offered division leadership teams the opportunity to collaboratively review data and use it to inform continuous improvement planning during annual leadership academy trainings, individual consultations and a one-time PK-3 conference, aimed to improve teaching practice, alignment and sustainability across preschool through third grade. 

“The leadership academies enabled leaders to come together in a professional network to reflect, plan and learn from others who are encountering similar challenges, which can be difficult to cultivate as the only early childhood leader in your community,” said Laura Kassner, a state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Education. “The network of expertise that has emerged as a result of VPI+ efforts is extraordinary.”

Accelerated child learning outcomes indicate that leaders were successful in their efforts. “Many kindergarten teachers, principals and division-level leaders witnessed, in new and tangible ways, the benefits of having a high-quality preschool program, as they reported VPI+ graduates entering Kindergarten as leaders among their peers, ready to learn and succeed,” Kassner said.

Next Steps for Early Childhood Education

Although federal funding for the initiative has come to a close, participating school divisions work to maintain slots created through VPI+ and state funding. And over the past year, the Commonwealth has increased investments in a number of early childhood initiatives aimed to impact VPI classrooms and community programs at scale. CASTL is a key partner in many of these initiatives, including Advancing Effective Interactions & Instruction in VPI.

“Through this new initiative, we are supporting divisions in improving quality through effective, data-driven professional development, taking lessons learned on what’s worked and expanding the impact to more teachers, children and families across Virginia,” Lhospital said.

For VPI+, strong relationships within school communities played a critical, foundational role in change. “Children cannot learn without secure, responsive relationships with teachers. Teachers cannot grow their practices without trusting relationships with leaders. CASTL could not support leaders without forming collaborative relationships with leadership teams and partners at the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and VDOE,” Lhospital said. 

But early childhood leaders need help to ensure every child in Virginia has the education experiences they need to succeed in school and life. Communities can make a difference for children by advocating for change and investing in early childhood education at the local level. After all, a community’s investment in early childhood education is an investment in itself — economic research shows that investments in early childhood lead to better outcomes in education, health, economic productivity and safer communities. 

“Achieving quality education experiences for all children requires greater supports to teachers and leaders — this means better compensation and access to quality PD for teachers and assistance in data-driven improvement efforts for leaders,” Lhospital said. “The more champions we have around Virginia, the more we can accomplish together.”