When Ashley Heacock’s children arrive home from preschool, the 32-year-old mother knows exactly what to ask.
Whether it’s about her 5-year-old daughter Hannah’s science experiment in class, or what book her second daughter, Sarah, 3, read that day, there’s no mystery about what went on that day at school.
That’s because Heacock and her husband, Alex, sometimes go to preschool, too.
“Because I know what a day in the classroom looks like, I know what to ask and how to be engaged with her,” Heacock said. “We loved the idea of being able to participate in our children’s education.”
The Heacocks have been going to preschool with their children at the Williamsburg Parent Cooperative Preschool in Williamsburg for three years, but Heacock worries her time in her daughters’ classrooms may come to an abrupt end if new regulations on day cares and preschools are approved this month.
Heacock’s children attend the Williamsburg Parent Cooperative Preschool, which is housed in St. Martin’s Episcopal Church at 1333 Jamestown Road.
Williamsburg’s cooperative preschool is one of the largest in Virginia, serving over 70 children from the Tidewater area, preschool director Molly Gareis said. The nonprofit preschool has been in operation for about 50 years.
In cooperative preschools, parents take turns assisting full-time teachers in the classroom, cutting down on preschool operating costs while also giving parents more involvement with their children, according to the Virginia Collaborative Preschool Council.
A special exception in the Virginia Department of Social Services’ regulations allows parents to volunteer at cooperative preschools after having four hours of annual training.
That exemption could disappear if new rules are approved.
New regulations would require 20 hours of training per parent annually —as much training as full-time day care staff receive — including first aid, CPR, daily health observation and medication administration training.
Cletisha Lovelace, a Virginia Department of Social Services spokeswoman said the proposed changes would “provide additional protections of the health, safety and welfare of children in care.”
The regulatory action would “align requirements of licensed child day centers with requirements for providers receiving child care and development funds,” Lovelace said. “This would provide a consistent level of minimum training for all individuals who provide direct classroom care to children- whether they are paid individuals, or volunteers who count in ratio.”
The Williamsburg cooperative preschool does not currently receive funding under the child care and development fund program.
The Social Services board is set to vote on the changes Aug. 15. If approved, the regulation will go to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature.
“There are no set time frames for how long this regulatory process can take,” Lovelace said.
If implemented, the new rules could spell the end of the of the Williamsburg Parent Cooperative Preschool, Gareis said.
“I don’t think there’s any way we could stay open,” she said. “There’s just no way when you’re working and raising young kids and volunteering in the classroom.”
What is a ‘co-op?’
Julie Tucker, a William & Mary employee, has been sending her 4-year-old daughter to the preschool for two years and wouldn’t want her child educated any other way.
“It’s learning about parenting, discipline, all the things that come up during those challenging toddler years,” Tucker said.
Based on the premise of parent involvement and learning through play, co-op preschools employ teachers and use parent volunteers to assist the teachers throughout the day. By employing fewer full-time teachers, cooperative preschools can keep costs and tuition low, and parents, like the Heacocks, can gain hands-on experience with their children’s education.
Tuition ranges from $70 a month to $225 per month, Gareis said.
As part of tuition, parents must volunteer in the classroom for a certain number of three-hour school days each month. For the Heacocks, who have three daughters, it averages out to three or four shifts per month.
“A huge part of the co-op is parent education,” said Gareis, who has been directing the preschool for 10 years. “Before I had my kids, I was a public school teacher with a master’s [degree] in early children education. I learned more with those teachers in a classroom than I did in any master’s class.”
Not enough time in the day
For some parents, full-time work or other obligations may prevent them from being able to complete annual training — meaning they cannot volunteer in the classroom, therefore their child cannot attend the cooperative preschool.
In Williamsburg, parents attend five hours of training annually and undergo tuberculosis testing and background checks, Gareis said.
The Department of Social Services had originally proposed 36 full hours of training annually, but is now recommending removing 16 hours of orientation training from the requirements.
“All of the same topics in orientation (including the free VDSS online pre-service class) will still need to be covered, but it will be up to the center as to how long this orientation training takes to complete,” Lovelace said.
Trying to find a middle ground
Gareis and other local parents, including Tucker, traveled to Lynchburg in June to attend a Department of Social Services board meeting.
During a public hearing, Gareis and Tucker spoke and offeed their proposal to keep a special exception for cooperative preschools in the new regulations.
For now, Gareis and the cooperative preschool parents are also continuing to reach out to elected officials and advocate for their type of preschool.
On June 29, Pogge wrote a letter to Social Services board, stating she believed the changes in regulations would result in an “unintended adverse consequence” for cooperative preschools.
“The recommended training mandate is disproportionate to the amount of time the parent volunteers spend in the classroom and with students,” Pogge wrote.
On July 26, Norment also wrote a letter to Duke Storen, the commissioner of the Department of Social Services, requesting the board consider alternative training requirements for cooperative preschools under the new regulations.
“It is my hope that a solution can be found that satisfies all parties,” Norment wrote.