The former Montrose School in South Orange is slated to become a preschool for special needs and general education students, according to a discussion at the most recent Board of Education meeting.
The goal is to reduce the number of students the district pays to send to programs in other towns, to accommodate rapidly growing enrollment throughout the district, and to gain revenue from tuition-paying students from outside the district, said South Orange – Maplewood School District Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider.
The Montrose Early Childhood Learning Center would seek to serve 150 students — 81 general education and 69 special education — in both full and half day programs. Roughly one third of the students (in the general education population) would be free- and reduced-lunch (FRL) eligible students, for whom tuition is waived.
There are currently 57 preschool students enrolled in the district, including special education, FRL and a limited number of tuition-paying students, said Schneider. The district is mandated by the state to provide and pay for special education and FRL students. There are four preK classes: three at Jefferson School and one at South Mountain School.
“If we have more students enrolling, we bottom line don’t have room right now if we don’t open another center to house [them], so they all would be going…out of district,” said Schneider.
The BOE approved the proposal in December of 2013, after eliminating several other options — ranging from a program for autistic children to leasing or selling the building — deemed to be impractical or less cost-effective.
The incremental cost to the district in the first year of the program would be $173,300, said Schneider. The district anticipates that cost will be offset by:
- seven prekindergarten students who currently attend out of district schools coming back to the district, saving roughly a half million dollars, and
- six out-of-district students attending the school, paid for by the sending districts
Those will lead to a net savings to the district of $316,700.
Board member Madhu Pai asked how the district was marketing the program to other districts. “How are we attracting these people?” Schneider said the special education department had been looking at other, similar programs and had begun outreach efforts.
“We picked the program that had the least amount of revenue to the district, so we need to make sure that we fill these six seats,” said Pai.
Schneider said one of the reasons the BOE chose this option is because there are few such programs in Essex County. She also said they anticipate that some students who currently attend Montclair State University’s preK program would opt into the SOM program.
Enrollment for preschool programs generally starts early in the year, so “It has to happen soon,” said Schneider.
“So this is a wing and a prayer?” asked BOE member Johanna Wright. “We’re hoping that people will come and enroll in a preschool… A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” She continued, “We know what it would be if we brought our [out-of-district] students back,” said Wright. “We would save money.”
BOE President Beth Daugherty said the special education department had begun reaching out to other districts. “I don’t think it’s just a whim, I think there’s actually been a lot of targeted outreach.”
“Right now there are seven preschoolers out of district that we cannot accommodate,” said Daugherty. “The other programs were reviewed and were determined to not be cost-effective because they require very small class sizes and a high adult-to-student ratio.”It was not going to save us millions of dollars. [From] a special education perspective, the most cost effective was going to be the preschool.”
The district has been renovating the Montrose building over the last few years, with an eye toward having it ready for a potential program. The school formerly housed a program for high school students who had difficulty thriving in a standard high school environment. Those students were eventually reintegrated into Columbia High School.