It’s not a hotel or a restaurant, but Randolph College Nursery School is one of the first in the state to be awarded five stars under the Virginia Star Quality Initiative, a state public-private partnership designed to empower families to make more informed decisions about their children’s early education.
The program is the first in the region and only the fourth in the state to earn the top rating, according to Brenda Edson, director of college relations. The school has served 3- and 4-year-olds but will add a 5-year-old class this year.
Longtime school director Holly Layne said she and her staff are thrilled with the accomplishment, which has been a goal since they were awarded four stars in 2008, when the program first began.
But Layne, who has been a mentor for other schools for the initiative, is just as excited about the growth of the quality assessment program because she hopes it will improve opportunities for everyone.
“I want every child in this community to have access to quality care,” she said. She hopes government and business funding sources will help make it possible for programs that are improving or rated highly to offer lower tuition or scholarships to families that ordinarily wouldn’t have the chance for high-quality early education.
“We could get a lot more children in the door … we would love that,” she said.
Participation in Virginia Star Quality Initiative is voluntary and free for early-education programs, which are given a mentor who provides training for staff and provides feedback on the four areas the initiative rates. Those include student/teacher interaction, program structure, environment and instruction, and educational background and development of staff. The initiative focuses on finding ways to assess the educational environment, rather than the children — as happens with testing — because one-size-fits-all assessment doesn’t give meaningful feedback, according to program literature.
The interaction and instructional support is the hard part, Layne said.
“This is not what I learned in college,” she said. “That’s the part when we talk to teachers, preschool teachers are like, ‘What?’ What this does is it really focuses on teacher-child interactions … you learn strategies to get children to say more, like asking open-ended questions, saying things like, ‘Tell me more.’”
The school teaches students strategies to solve problems critically, creatively and peacefully, Layne said.
One recent example, according to teacher Kelly Kirkwood, was when teachers placed prisms in the windows but didn’t tell the children what they had done, instead waiting for the students to discover and investigate the resulting rainbows.
“On their own they mapped where the rainbows were and how they moved throughout the classroom,” she said. Students noticed when there were no rainbows on cloudy days and saw the rainbows move across the floor throughout the course of a day.
“Eventually, after a few weeks of exploration, they figured out where the rainbows were coming from. With our approach, the role of the adult is to truly be a play partner,” she said. “We model certain ideas but then we follow the child’s lead. … We do something called scaffolding. We see where they are and then we give them the materials or the experiences to bring that knowledge up to another level.”
For parent Nugent Koscielny, the value of the program is in her son Jefferson’s “blooming” into a more confident child.
“We started him out in a couple of other programs,” she said. “Here there’s definitely more of a sense that they know Jefferson and who he is. He’s come out of his shell. In bigger classes … he was always the last one in the classroom to eat, to do anything, but here … This is the perfect balance between the teacher’s input and following … the kid’s lead.”
Koscielny’s husband is French and was used to a very structured system, she said, and was concerned their child wouldn’t be stimulated if not being challenged in the classical academic way.
“But here, that’s absolutely not the case. He’s stimulated, he’s challenged, he’s pulled up in every way possible,” she said.
“Plus, he’s happy,” she added, watching her son run from a teacher to her and back again. “Look at him.”
Layne said it’s important for adults to remember that play is the work of children, and that keeping kids’ minds active is imperative for early development.
“We know — have known forever — that children need to be active and playing. Now the brain research is backing us up,” she said. “I think it’s important to keep up with that yearly training. There’s still a lot of kindergarten teachers out there that are taking playtime away from children because they misbehave in the classroom, and anyone who’s been in preschool for the past five years and has done any training knows better than to do that, that the brain needs to be moving.”
The school takes a problem-solving approach, asking students to acknowledge the problem and say why it’s a problem.
“Time out doesn’t help,” she said.
Even more important for Layne, though, is hearing from elementary teachers that children who have finished at Randolph are good citizens.
“We can churn out kids that know all their facts … but if they can’t solve a problem peacefully, if they’re not willing to help their fellow man, if they don’t have empathy for others and acceptance of differences, then it doesn’t really make a difference if they can read or write,” she said.
“I want these kids to be resourceful. [If] they’re going to solve the problems that are facing us in the future, they need to be resourceful, because we’re running out of resources!”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.