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A new pilot program will place 40 student teachers in area early education programs beginning this week.
The University of Mary Washington has teamed up with Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area to identify high-quality early childhood classrooms where its education majors can practice what they've learned--and possibly be recruited after graduation.
"[Elementary teacher] candidates enrolled in literacy courses focused on the early grades now have the opportunity to work with [pre-kindergarten] students to develop literacy skills," said Adria R. Hoffman, director of clinical experiences and partnerships for UMW's College of Education.
They'll be placed in Head Start and early childhood special education classrooms in Fredericksburg and the counties of Stafford and Spotsylvania, and at Minnieland Academy at Salem Fields in Spotsylvania.
The classes and private early education center have all received high ratings in Smart Beginnings' Virginia Star Quality Initiative. It assesses professional child care and instruction, and provides mentors and resources to help improve the quality of their services.
Hoffman said studies show that teachers who graduate from teacher education programs that provide field experience and mentorship have higher retention rates and greater student achievement than those who don't.
"As the College of Education continues to expand, we will require additional practicum placements for teacher candidates," she said. "We are particularly excited about our new five-year pathways toward licensure in special education."
The Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area initiative began as Success By 6 through the Rappahannock United Way in 2001 with a focus on early literacy. Its goal today is to improve the quality of care and education for children from birth until kindergarten so that they are prepared for school.
"It's that cradle to career look," said Sara Branner, Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area's executive director. "If we can get [children] ready for school, they'll be ready for the workforce and to help the economy."
Her office is part of a statewide system whose programs include the Virginia Star Quality Initiative. That program sends independent observers to day care centers and educational programs such as Head Start to rate them on such things as whether staff have degrees in early childhood development and how they interact with children. They're then assigned a star rating and assigned a mentor for two years to help them boost their performance. Parents seeking quality child care can access the ratings at the website smartbeginnings .org.
Quality early child care and education are key because about 90 percent of the brain is developed by age 5. The seeds of important workforce skills--such as critical thinking, effective communication and teamwork--are planted before then, and early experiences also have lifelong effects on physical health.
Yet one in five children in this area enter kindergarten without the basic skills to succeed, Branner said.
Currently, 20 early care and education programs participate in Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area's Virginia Star Quality Initiative. Together, they serve more than 1,700 children in Fredericksburg, Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.
"Our goal is to add at least 16 new programs in the next two years for a total of 35, approximately one third of the area [day care] programs," Branner said.
Among those currently participating are Salem Fields Learning Center in Spotsylvania and all three area YMCAs.
"We're always looking for opportunities to improve and help our staff get extra support," said Sharon Crabtree, Salem Fields' executive director. "Overall it's been a really good experience and it's been very helpful. This just puts you levels above the expectations of state licensing."
At the Rappahannock Area YMCA's Massad branch in southern Stafford County, the Virginia Star Quality Initiative mentor came up with quarter goals for such things as changing room layouts and working with children on their communication skills, said Youth Director Karla Peot. They also purchased some supplies and provided training.
"We're a three-star program, and they're helping us to eventually get to be a five-star program," she said.
Smart Beginnings and UMW also are partnering with Stafford's Department of Social services to provide free professional development training for child care providers that will be offered from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 2 and 3 at the university's Stafford campus. And Branner's office works with the Childcare Network and Germanna Community College to present an annual conference for child care providers in May at GCC.
To fund its programs, which include Al's Pals: Kids Making Healthy Choices, Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area currently partners with more than 40 individuals, businesses and public and private agencies to provide resources and training for area day care providers and Head Start programs.
It's also organizing Champions for Children, a two-year campaign to raise $250,000 for its programs.
"That investment you make, you may not see it until the end but you will see it in the community." Branner said.
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407