MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (WDVM) — In the heart of Appalachia, West Virginia was a pioneer in early childhood education programs — but this economy (with its desperate shortage of labor) is taking its toll on families who most need the help.
An eastern panhandle universal and pre-K and kindergarten program is a perfect example. West Virginia has some of the highest child and family poverty rates in the U.S. Median household income in the Mountain State is at the bottom of the list, and — being a rural state — there are so-called child care deserts.
Early childhood programs are in place to address this at the Eastern Panhandle Instructional Cooperative (EPIC), for example, but filling staff vacancies for which there are no applicants?
“That’s just very scary because the services that we provide for our children and our families are critical services. That’s the population that we serve,” said Heidi Bach-Airbin, director of the EPIC Early Head Start program.
Research shows that socioeconomic integration offers academic benefits for children. But this Martinsburg program is desperate for bus drivers, teachers and support staff.
“I don’t want to be in a place where we have to close classrooms and maybe figure out a different way to provide some of those services because we are so short-staffed,” said Bach-Arbin.
Services are provided for families here prenatal to age three.
“All of our families, our Head Start families, fall at 100 percent at or below the federal poverty levels, so they are the highest in need,” Bach-Arbin explained.
This being West Virginia’s fastest-growing county, jobs are aplenty.
“We’re looking for qualified people. We would love to have individuals come join our family. because it really is a family,” said Bach-Arbin.
With West Virginia’s dwindling population, tax dollars have been more easily available to these pre-K programs. The key to rebuilding this educational infrastructure quite simply is finding personnel. Studies have shown that students enrolled in West Virginia’s preschool programs scored higher in math, literacy and language skills than those who were not.