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Charleston West Side reform group focused on preschool

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While access to preschool is one of the few, if not the only, aspect of West Virginia's education system that is ranked among the best in the nation, providing families access does not necessarily get kids into classrooms.

Enrolling children in pre-k is the next focus of a comprehensive program designed to overhaul and reform schools on Charleston's crime-ridden West Side.

The steering committee of the West Side Revitalization and Transformation Initiative -- which includes a five-year community school pilot project -- met at the Kanawha County Board of Education last week to discuss new data that shows the impact preschool can have on young students living in the long impoverished neighborhood.

Only about 33 percent of third-graders who participated in standardized testing at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School -- located in an area police have identified as the most crime-ridden in Charleston -- attended preschool.

Those who attended preschool scored a 421 on the Westest in reading, while those who did not attend preschool scored a 401. In almost every subject, students who had attended preschool scored significantly higher.

In addition, students who missed more than 10 days of school scored much lower than those who hadn't, which in Mary C. Snow's case is about half of the pool of students who also did not attend pre-school.

"That's not acceptable. We've got to find a way that we can get to kids earlier or we're going to lose them," Cheryl Plear, a retired teacher who's leading Kanawha County Schools efforts on the project, said. "When we saw that, I said 'Oh my God, if we can do that with pre-k and get that much improved, think about if we do things aggressively before they even get to preschool.'"

"Teachers have to make up for years of developmental issues before they can even start teaching. So we need to do something and we need to do it quickly," she said.

Among the reform initiative's many goals is to create a single source of educational and health services in the neighborhood to support children from birth through high school graduation. The community school pilot project will waive certain state policies at schools on the West Side, allowing for experimental techniques such as year-round class and student uniforms.

Education officials also plan to explore extended day programs that offer students extra hours of instruction every day, as well as focused professional development for teachers, which will address personalized learning methods.

But there are other problems on the West Side concerning preschool besides getting parents involved -- there aren't enough buildings available that offer the program locally.

Right now, about 15 Mary C. Snow students are on a waiting list for pre-k.

"If we could convince all parents to enroll in preschool, we don't have nearly enough capacity. There's still not adequate quality and space," said Rev. Matthew Watts, who's leading the project. "The system would be over-run, and that'd be a good problem to have." Watts called schools "the community scapegoat," saying the disproportionate amount of crime and poverty on the West Side -- which he says is the result of a crack-cocaine epidemic started in the '80s -- has manifested itself in students and performance in school.

"This isn't a bunch of slackers and welfare clingers. This is the working poor, with a high percentage of single moms," he said. "These students need help yesterday."

School officials say in addition to low attendance rates in the neighborhood, students often fall asleep in class because of issues at home and children as young as five-years-old wake themselves up for class and walk to school.

"It's always worse than what we think it is. The schools have become the social pathological diagnostic centers. The schools' performance is measured and they take a lot of the blame," Watts said.