Preschool classes sought at hearing

Allison Gregg, 34, of Woodstock, speaks in support of funding the county's pre-school program during the Shenandoah County School Board's public hearing Monday night at the county government center in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — At a Monday night public hearing, the Shenandoah County School Board met to receive community feedback on plans for the school division’s 2016 fiscal year budget.

Responses on what the School Board should include in the budget it plans to approve on March 19 came overwhelmingly in support of new preschool classrooms to account for a growing population of county children missing out on early childhood education.

The difference is noticeable in kindergarten, said Kate Erickson, of Woodstock, who teaches at W.W. Robinson Elementary School.

“It’s definitely not just a daycare playtime,” she said. The students in her class who attended preschool could write their names, recite the alphabet and were familiar with classroom rules and routines.

“We can spend up to the first nine weeks mastering and teaching the rules and routines,” Erickson said. “That’s a quarter of the school year that could be lost when we could be teaching instructional academics. So it’s huge to me to have students who are coming in already having that piece mastered.”

Watching other students struggle from lack of previous education that their parents wanted for them, she said, “It’s heartbreaking to see.”

The county runs seven preschool classes through the Virginia Preschool Initiative and one toddler group, and the wait list contains 39 children, program coordinator Tammy Hopkins confirmed after the hearing. Classroom placement is based on district lines.

“We are asking for two more,” she said. “[The wait list] seems to grow each year.”

In budget talks, the School Board has addressed concerns about needing to fix and replace aging school furniture and outdated supplies, and grow educational programs for English learners, special education students and beginning readers. The district also hopes to support growing numbers of students in music programs that don’t have enough supplies to go around.

Melissa Whiteman, president of the Sandy Hook Elementary Parent Teacher Organization in Strasburg, pointed out that the PTO collected money last year through box top fundraisers to contribute to the replacement of flooring in one of the school gymnasiums.

The Sandy Hook PTO raised $10,920 toward the effort.

She said other fundraisers have purchased whiteboards for classrooms and supported the school’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

“If we can help with the preschool program, we will certainly do that as well,” she said.

An emotional topic for speakers and listeners, requests for more classrooms referenced the importance of preparing children equally so they’ll succeed at higher grade levels — particularly important for children classified with special education needs and those learning English as a second language.

Angie Sabates, a Spanish interpreter for the county, related her own experiences working with area parents and children before she translated for two fathers whose children have been wait listed.

She said because programs like Head Start through the Skyline Community Action Partnership don’t offer transportation, those programs are not an option for some families. Besides, she said she confirmed with Head Start’s Shenandoah County location at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Woodstock that it doesn’t have room for any more students.

Beginning a school career with kindergarten and missing out on preschool is especially difficult for non-English speakers, she said.

“They begin not only without the preschool basic knowledge but then also without the language,” she said.

The problem has a domino effect on families.

“Some of these moms really need to go to work, and they cannot,” she said. “Really, their providership depends on this job, that they should get it and cannot, because their little one has to stay home another year.”

All county families whose children are learning English work with Sabates, and she said, “I’m speaking for all of them.”

The School Board will meet for a work session at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the county board room at 600 N. Main St., Woodstock. The district will hold its spring question and answer sessions from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at Signal Knob Middle School in Strasburg, March 11 at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg and March 17 at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or