The Prince William County School Board adopted a $655 million operating budget last night that includes an expanded all-day kindergarten program designed to help meet requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and narrow the achievement gap between minorities and whites.
Under the adopted 2006 budget, Northern Virginia's second-largest school district would offer the program to every student at each of the county's 18 Title I elementary schools -- those with the highest percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunches, a commonly used indicator of poverty. It also would offer five all-day kindergarten classes at other schools with disadvantaged children.
All-day kindergarten now is offered only to the Title I school students who perform least well; the rest attend half-day kindergarten.
"We're targeting the neediest first . . . and research shows that the more skills you can give children at an earlier age, the easier it is to make the success later," board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) said in an interview. "When you get them into the elementary grades, you want them to be ready, not to play catch-up."
The school budget, which is about $64.4 million higher than last year's, must be approved by the Board of Supervisors, which will vote on the 2006 county budget this month. But the wrangling that often occurs in other jurisdictions between the two boards is likely to be avoided, because Prince William schools have operated, since 1998, under a stipulation that they will receive 56.75 percent of the county's general revenue.
The new budget highlights the No Child Left Behind law, which calls on school officials to ensure that minorities, disabled students and those with limited English proficiency pass state standardized tests. This year, at least 70 percent of students in each category will have to pass the Virginia Standards of Learning exams in English and math.
Preparing kindergartners for the tests, which begin in third grade, is crucial, officials said. The budget request includes about $2 million to add a total of 28 teachers and teacher's aides for the expanded all-day kindergarten program, which will include twice the number of children who now participate. Many of the district's children in Title I schools are minorities, according to School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly.
The budget request also puts a premium on recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers, a challenge in Northern Virginia's competitive market. It includes nearly $28.5 million for an average raise of 5.9 percent for teachers, and $2.5 million to add a salary step for veteran educators who have reached the top of the salary scale. The budget also increases starting salaries for new teachers with a bachelor's degree to $37,615, from $36,519.