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Space is primary concern for childhood education program

April 23, 2002|BY SARAH MULLIN

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County school officials said they are concerned about a new state mandate that requires the Board of Education to create and implement an early childhood education program by 2012.

The bill, signed by Gov. Bob Wise earlier this month, will allow parents to voluntarily enroll 4-year-olds in the program designed to prepare young children for school.

"Our problem is space," said Frank Aliveto, assistant superintendent for Berkeley County Schools.

Aliveto said Berkeley County built intermediate schools for fourth- and fifth-graders so the county could have room for kindergartners.

"There are about 13,000 students in our school system with about 1,000 students per K-12 grade level. If we have a pre-K program there may be 1,000 more seats we have to find," Aliveto said.

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West Virginia State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, was chairman of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Early Care and Education and spearheaded the legislation.

He said he is aware of the problems in counties where population is growing rapidly.

"We understand growth, and we want to make sure we give Jefferson and Berkeley counties the opportunity to have early childhood programs," Unger said. "This (growth) is not the situation in the rest of the state."

Unger said there is an 18 percent decline in school enrollment throughout the state, which works out to about 50,000 students over the next decade.

Unger said the money saved in areas such as teacher pay and lunch services due to the decline in enrollment in other counties will go toward building classrooms in growth counties.

"We support it with the understanding that with this kind of mandate, there has to be financial assistance to help growth counties. It's going to be interesting," Aliveto said.

Each county will decide if the early childhood education program will be fewer than five days per week and less than a full day, according to the bill.

The Head Start program in Berkeley County, if approved by the state school superintendent, may count toward the county's goal, according to the bill.

Head Start is a federally funded program offered to children of low-income families and children with disabilities.

Unger said the mandate is not meant to steal children from Head Start programs.

"We can't have a situation where one county has state funds for early childhood education and pushing out federal funds for the Head Start programs. We can't afford that," Unger said.

The county board is required to submit its implementation plan to both the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources and the West Virginia Board of Education prior to the school year beginning in 2003.

Unger said early childhood education programs allow children to be more prepared for school, improve standardized test scores, reduce children's chances of repeating grades, reduce the number of students in special education programs and improve students' chances of graduating from high school.

He based the statistics on a study that was conducted by the Southern Regional Education Board.

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