St. Francis VOICE and Pre-K Classes
Did you know that just eight years ago, the Prince William County Public School (PWCPS) system only had 8 Pre-K classes? There were lots of private programs for those that could afford to send their children – but not much available for those for whom private programs were not an option. The St. Francis of Assisi VOICE ministry began the initiative, that with the help of many other groups, changed Pre K availability for all. Today there are 80 Pre-K classes in PWCPS.
Why it’s important?
The well-being of today’s children affects the future vitality of our community. Young children who enjoy positive early experiences are better able to develop the skills that prepare them for school. Children who arrive at kindergarten prepared to learn perform better throughout school and complete more years of education. A more educated workforce, in turn, means higher incomes, more public revenues, and less poverty and crime – in other words, a thriving city that attracts business and jobs. Pre-K matters! Take a moment to read this infographic.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14) That meant all the children regardless of socioeconomic status, race, creed, or family history.
As a teacher of English Language Learners at a Title I school in Woodbridge, I understand the importance of early childhood education. At my school, it is the norm for our students’ first experience in a school setting to be in the Kindergarten classroom. For those of you who are thinking back fondly to your Kindergarten experience of graham crackers and milk, followed by story time, things have changed drastically. Students who have not had exposure to literacy activities before starting Kindergarten are being identified at “below grade level” and “at risk” at 5 years old.
My work with VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) has allowed me to advocate for more Pre K opportunities for children in my community. To begin this important work, VOICE leaders did a listening campaign around the issue of Pre K. You may remember, we held such a session at St. Francis on a Sunday afternoon. We listened to parents and teachers to find out their experiences with Pre K and Kindergarten readiness. After about 9 months of listening work and building relationships with those affected by the issue, we held an action at a Prince William County School Board meeting. That evening, the board was going to vote “no” to accepting state funding to provide 8 additional Pre K classes for the following school year. These classes would be funded solely with state money for a 4-year period. It was literally “free money” for our county school system. At the time, elected officials were campaigning on the problem of over-crowded classrooms in the county. In conversations with VOICE leaders, it was made known that there simply was not the space for 8 Pre K classes.
VOICE came to the meeting prepared. We had nine speakers testifying to the importance of providing Pre K for low-income children in our community. There were so many supporters wearing yellow VOICE buttons in the audience, they needed to open up the room partition in the meeting room to make space for all those in attendance. When the last speaker ended his Citizen’s Time comment with, “Please stand if you support a vote of yes on accepting state funding to create Pre K opportunities for our children,” nearly 100 people stood in unity. Needless to say, the school board members voted unanimously to accept the funding and find space to hold the classes.
This event was my first taste of the power of organizing. Something that had seemed a dream nearly a year prior became a reality through the power of building relationships across community members. Currently, Prince William County Schools has 80 Pre K classes. They also have a Pre K center, dedicated only to serving our youngest students. The organizing done by the members of VOICE cast a spotlight on the importance of Kindergarten readiness. It taught me that you don’t need to be an elected official to create true and lasting change in your community. Working with our St. Francis VOICE team allows me to live out my Catholic faith in service to others. If you would like to know more about VOICE, please contact me at email@example.com