It’s been a year since parents checked their kids’ cubbies at Barrett Early Learning Center and found the letters announcing the board’s abrupt decision to close the preschool that’s been known for its diversity and affordability for nearly 80 years. The new board and staff are making long term plans so the school doesn’t find itself on the verge of shutting down again, starting with improvements to prepare for an intensive statewide evaluation.
Parents, teachers, alumni, and community members rallied last summer, and within a month the newly formed board of directors had raised $30,000 to keep the center open and address cash flow issues. It’s a fixture in the Ridge Street neighborhood and has historically been one of the few affordable childcare options for low-income residents, attracting generations of mostly African-American families, so last year’s financial crisis raised questions about the cultural impact of losing the iconic center.
“It’s stabilized, and not in crisis mode anymore,” said director Eunice Garrett, who’s been at Barrett for more than a decade. “We’re better now than we’ve ever been. We can conquer anything.”
Earlier this month, Barrett accepted $65,000 raised by the the Charlottesville Ten Miler, and the board is putting the funds toward establishing an endowment. Last week saw a visit from an evaluator for the Virginia Star Quality Initiative, a voluntary rating and improvement system established by statewide school readiness program Smart Beginnings. The Star Quality program serves two main purposes: Help families find top notch childcare and preschool, and assist centers like Barrett improve their services. Evaluators rate centers on a five-star scale, and Garrett said preparing for it is no joke. Schools are rated on everything from adult-to-child ratios and the staff’s level of education and training, to how the classrooms are furnished and the variety of art supplies available to the kids.
Preparing for the evaluation was a long and tedious process, but Garrett said all the staff and volunteers jumped on board with the common goal of earning as many stars as possible, and it brought a new feeling of camaraderie to the staff.
“It was hard,” Garrett said, noting that the school had a long way to go because classroom organization and updated supplies had gone by the wayside during the financial crisis. “But we’re one big family now.”
While the staff spent months attending training workshops and the board worked with local nonprofit Building Goodness to make structural improvements like the recently built $80,000 fire escape, volunteers like Joyce Allan tackled the classrooms. She spent several days a week cleaning and helping the teachers organize and bring the learning spaces up to snuff.
“The classroom is the curriculum for preschoolers,” Allan said, noting how crucial it is for teachers and students to have access to the right materials.
Allan said she’s seen a shift in morale since the crisis last summer, and now she wants to focus on Barrett’s mission and what its role is in Charlottesville.
“It was an icon in a time when everything was segregated, and it holds a special place in our heart and soul,” Allan said. “It’s not an African-American center anymore, but that’s where the heart of it is.”