Chris Schulz Published

State’s Pre-K Program Ranks Among Top In Country

A group of young children, many with a hand raised, sit on the floor in front of a smiling, blonde woman wearing a light green sweater and holding a picture book in front of the group. The scene is set in front of shelves of books in the background.iStockphoto

West Virginia has not fared well in recent national rankings of educational success. However, a recent report on the country’s pre-kindergarten programs ranked the state among the best in the nation. 

In May, the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University released its State of Pre-K report. The institute, known as NIEER, has been advocating for universal pre-K and grading each state’s existing program for 20 years. 

States are rated on factors such as curriculum supports, staff to child ratio and teacher specialized training. This year, West Virginia scored a 9 out of 10, placing it behind just two states in the quality of its pre-K program. 

One of the key factors in assessing a universal pre-K system is access. With 63 percent of the state’s four-year-olds enrolled in pre-K, West Virginia has the sixth best access in the country.

Kaylee Rosencrance, a preschool special needs teacher in Randolph County, was recently surprised to learn that not all states in the country offer the same level of access to their youngest learners.

“After looking into different states, I was actually so surprised that there were not public preschool programs,” she said.

Rosencrance said she uses a learning system called High Scope in her classroom, which helps her students integrate events from their life into their play, which is the main learning mode. 

“We just incorporate learning into their everyday routine. So within those small groups, and during that work time, the teacher and the assistant are actively engaged in asking questions, trying to further their thinking as to what they’re doing,” she said. “And although they are playing, they are still learning.”

For Rosencrance, one of the biggest pieces to her success is the support she receives. She works closely with Head Start, the federal program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families. Rosencrance also has regular opportunities to work with colleagues and support staff at both the local and state level.

“The support that we have as preschool teachers here in Randolph County is huge. Our state department supports our county and then our county supports preschool staff,” she said. “It’s really like a ripple effect of when you have support from the top. It really helps us here in the classroom.” 

Pre-K Coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education Janet Bock-Hager’s office provides state-level support to classrooms like Rosencrance’s. Bock-Hager credits the county teams, which include teachers, a pre-K coordinator and a Head Start representative for driving and innovating the state’s pre-K curriculum.

“They take state pre-K policy and state pre-K standards, and implement those and the state team provides individualized support to those counties upon request,” she said. “We also go out and visit each program a minimum of once every three years with our pre-K program reviews.”

Bock-Hager said the state’s current success is the culmination of 20 years of work, starting with the passage of Senate Bill 247 by the West Virginia Legislature in 2002.

“No matter where you live, you are offered universal pre-K in the state of West Virginia. It’s been in full implementation since the 2012-2013 school year,” she said. “It’s based on legislation that was passed in 2002 and counties had 10 years to build their pre-K systems. But in West Virginia, we have a mandate to collaborate with existing programs.”

The requirements of that law including curriculum, a universal enrollment process and transition plans to support families and children as they move into and out of pre-K have fostered strong collaboration across all programs and levels in the state.

Melissa Sherfinski, an associate professor of early childhood and elementary education at West Virginia University, studies pre-K programs in several states, and she said one of West Virginia’s strengths is the integration of Head Start.

“What that does is it helps to bring kids of all different income levels together, mixed in the same classrooms,” she said.

Sherfinski said the state’s integration of Head Start into all pre-K classrooms has created a collaborative way of doing universal pre-K that opens up opportunities for all students. She also said the use of play-based learning is crucial.

“They can use their communication skills with others, they can gain that confidence by taking up that new persona, and they can imagine what or who they might be in very creative ways,” Sherfinski said. “They kind of metaphorically stand on the shoulders of their peers. Socio-dramatic play is a wonderful way for children to be able to learn from one another, and to begin to cooperate, and to come up with ideas together.” 

While other educators are focused on expanding the pre-K program’s successes into other grade levels, Sherfinski’s biggest concern is influence in the other direction, what’s called “curriculum pushdown.”

“People are beginning to question whether pre-K is not the new first grade with all of the heightened expectations, and especially post-pandemic, all of the concerns about learning loss for children,” she said. “I think it is so important not to forget that young children are young children. We want to do everything we can to support who they’re becoming, but at the same time they’re being, and they need to be in joyful environments.”

For now, Sherfinski has not seen evidence that curriculum pushdown is manifesting in West Virginia’s schools, but work to improve the state’s program is continuous. That includes efforts to expand universal education to three-year-olds. The NIERR report did identify one category in which it would like to see West Virginia improve: Staff professional development. Sherfinski agrees.

“I think some districts can do that really well, and I think that some struggle more. I would guess that funding is a large part of that,” she said. “That’s a really good opportunity for folks to work towards and expand, and I think they are working to do that.”

Despite its 20 years of buildup, it will be several more years before studies can be done on the long-range impacts of universal pre-K. The first students to go through the universal program are only now starting high school, but Rosencrance said she hears every year from Kindergarten teachers about the difference a good pre-K experience can make for students.