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West Virginia's Universal Pre-K Program is ranked among the top in the nation, according to the 2018 Yearbook released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), recognizing the state as a leader in pre-K access for 4-year-olds and quality standards. 

The State of Preschool Yearbook is the only national report on state-funded preschool programs with detailed information on enrollment, funding, teacher qualifications and other policies related to quality, the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) reported in a press release.

"West Virginia continues to rank among the top in the nation, ranking sixth in the nation for 4-year-old access and meets nine of 10 benchmarks," WVDE officials stated in the release. 

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Steven Paine, said "The work to support the success of all West Virginia students start with policies that impact our youngest learners." 

Paine said he is proud West Virginia has been a leader in universal pre-K, because residents know the children who attend high-quality pre-K programs enter kindergarten with better reading skills, richer vocabularies and stronger basic math skills than those who do not attend preschool. 

Legislation was passed in 2017 to change the 4-year-old eligibility cut-off date for West Virginia’s Universal Pre-K program from September 1 to July 1, effective with the 2018-19 school year. Additionally, West Virginia’s Universal Access to a Quality Early Education System was updated to include requirements  prohibiting or severely limiting the use of suspension in pre-K due to a child’s behavior.

Requirements include temporary suspension only as a last resort in extraordinary circumstances and program provisions for developing a multidisciplinary team, including efforts to engage parents and appropriate community resources, and a written plan to support children with behavioral challenges.

"West Virginia has focused on improving program quality," the WVDE press release stated. "As of July 2013, all new lead teachers in nonpublic settings are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood or a related field and, as of July 2014, all assistant teachers are required to hold the Early Childhood Classroom Assistant Teacher Authorization.

"West Virginia also increased instructional days per year and hours per week to at least 1,500 minutes of instruction per week and 48,000 minutes (800 hours) of instruction per year. Programs must operate no fewer than four days per week to meet annual and weekly operational requirements."

The West Virginia Universal Pre-K System provides prekindergarten programs in all 55 counties in the state. Public schools receive West Virginia Universal Pre-K funding directly, and a majority of programs partner with child care centers, private programs or Head Start agencies in order to meet demand.

West Virginia also has been singled out for providing better access to preschool programs and dedicating more dollars to the effort than most other states in the country, WVDE officials reported. 

The West Virginia Universal Pre-K Program boasts a 76 percent participation rate based on 4-year-olds who go on to attend the state’s kindergarten program as 5-year-olds. It enrolled more than 16,400 children, which census data notes is 67 percent of 4-year olds in the state.

Nationwide, state-funded preschool program enrollment continues to grow, serving more than 1.6 million children, however, just a third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs nationwide.

Monica DellaMea, Executive Director of the Office of Early & Elementary Learning, said over the years, West Virginia has increased the duration of the preschool program as well as the number of instructional days to help ensure students in the state are receiving the best start possible. 

"We are proud to provide strong kindergarten programs in all 55 counties," DellaMea said. 

The full NIEER report can be accessed by visiting http://nieer.org.

For more information on West Virginia’s Universal Pre-K program, visit https://wvde.us/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2018EEL-annualreport.pdf.

— Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH 

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