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More than 900 children now sit on the waiting list for Fairfax County schools’ preschool programs, according to a new report released by the school system.

The school system serves as the county’s main provider of the Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which promote school readiness for low-income children from infancy through age 5.

Currently, 918 children remain on the waitlist for the programs, according to the annual report, issued by the School Board’s advisory committee for the preschool programs. That marks a 3.5 percent increase over last year, despite the school system adding classroom seats for 128 more children this year.

The growing wait list, even with the increased capacity, highlights both growing awareness for the programs and growing need across the county, said Maura Burke, the school district’s coordinator of early childhood curriculum and grant management.

The number of FCPS students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, an accepted metric for poverty, is projected to climb to 28 percent next year. Families qualify for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs based on federal poverty and free and reduced lunch guidelines.

School officials have pledged support for preschool, seeing it as a major tool in closing the achievement gap that exists between low-income students and their peers.

Of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, those who participated in Head Start were more likely to pass state standardized tests in reading and math than those who did not across all grade levels.

“What can we do to get through that waiting list?” said School Board member Patty Reed (Providence). “These kids will never get that time back, and that time can really make a difference.”

That reasoning pushed the School Board to find room in next year’s already tight budget for two new preschool classrooms at a price tag of $200,000.

Still, while Burke said she is glad to serve more students, she also cautioned that adding more seats is not an easy fix. The gulf separating supply and demand for preschool spots in Fairfax County results not just from lack of funds but lack of resources.

The school system teaches 1,475 students aged 3-5 through Head Start. Early Head Start serves 48 infants and toddlers too young for the other program.

The programs are spread across 65 sites, most of them elementary schools. Finding a room for each preschool class is no easy task in a district with many schools already over-capacity. Adding just two for next year is a stretch, Burke said.

And the Head Start programs also provide much more than a classroom. The program also provides family services and health, nutrition and mental health staff who assist families and conduct home visits.

“Although the waitlist weighs heavy on us, it’s not just a matter of opening the door to more kids,” Burke said. “We need to think about the other comprehensive services that we provide.”

The preschool programs are supported by a mix of federal grants and state and local funding.

The state contributes up to $3,000 per student for pre-K education through the Virginia Preschool Initiative, and local districts must match the state funding. When the actual cost for a preschool seat exceeds the state funding and the local match, the county must make up the difference.

The cost per student in Fairfax County exceeds $15,000, more than five times the money provided by the state.

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com