A $1.422 Million grant obtained by the South Orange-Maplewood School District to expand preschool could ultimately lead to universal pre-K — bringing free preschool education to up to 1,000 children ages 3 and 4 throughout the towns each year.
But first the program will grow to 109 students this year, with plans to have 400 preschoolers enrolled by 2022/23 or sooner.
SOMSD Director of Special Services Dr. Laura Morana “jumped” on an opportunity to apply for the grant money this past summer, aided by District Business Administrator Paul Roth. Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra reported at the Sept. 17 Board of Educatioan meeting that the State of New Jersey awarded the grants in a “competitive manner” this summer. According to a release from the Office of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, the “new Preschool Education Expansion Aid (PEEA) of $20.6 million to 31 eligible districts … will enhance and expand preschool education programs for more than 2,000 three and four-year-old children across the state.”
“This is not entitlement money. This is competitive funding,” said Ficarra, who later led the Board and the audience at the Sept. 17 meeting in a round of applause for Morana and Roth.
According to Gov. Murphy’s office, “[T]his expansion was made possible due to Governor Murphy’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget, which included $50 million for PEEA and an additional $33 million in Preschool Education Aid. This is the largest increase in pre-K funding in over a decade.”
“By investing in early childhood education, we are making a long-term investment in the next generation,” said Murphy via the release. “Every child deserves the opportunity to have access to quality pre-K programs and this funding will provide our children with the tools and support they need to reach their greatest potential.” (Read the full release from the Office of the Governor here.)
Morana and others at the BOE meeting on Monday echoed Murphy. Said Morana, “Pre-K is a precursor to success in Kindergarten and so forth.” She added later, “Everyone benefits. Everyone has access to free full day preschool.”
Indeed, families that were previously paying tuition will no longer be doing so (Ficarra said that 33 children’s families had been paying tuition). All families benefiting will be also in-district —and, in fact, there are currently no out-of-district students enrolled in the South Orange-Maplewood School District preschool program at Montrose Early Childhood Center, said District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner.
“We have the flexibility of administering the funds in a way that benefits everyone,” said Roth.
Also, according to Turner, although “no determination has been made as yet on the method of selection in future,” some method would be devised to assure access to those in need.
“The District will establish an Early Childhood Advisory Council ECAC, as the vehicle to engage key community stakeholders, with a focus on preschool program implementation and expansion,” Turner explained via email. “This Council will be responsible for designing a recruitment plan for next and future years including how to effectively reach out to underserved portions of the community, how to select students to maximize its benefit to families who otherwise would not have access to high quality preschool programs, and how to engage additional partners.”
When the grant was first announced in South Orange-Maplewood, concerns were raised that this could hurt private preschools in the towns; however, Morana explained to the Board of Education that such an expansion would — and already does — involve partnerships with private schools due to the fact that the school district does not have the capacity, either in facilities or instructors, to accommodate the students.
Morana noted that the grant requires hiring a master teacher. It also requires that a third of children served are special education students.
Morana noted that the grant “is renewed every year” and that the timetable had been moved up, with the deadline for submitting for 2019/20 coming this fall. “So we need projections and to identify partners,” said Morana.
Roth explained that the $1.422M would be mostly used for salaries, with about $600,000 offsetting existing salaries and the rest going toward the extension of staff and miscellaneous costs for trips and supplies.
Other upsides include the fact that the preschool day will be expanded from 5 hours to 6 hours.
Unfortunately, explained Roth, the change in hours “does break the tiering of bus transportation” and would add significant costs to transportation for the first year (approximately $200,000). Bur Roth said that the district would be able to plan and bid ahead for next year and bring the costs down again. He also said that the district was still coming out ahead budget-wise: “We are netting out a quarter of a million to the good of the district. … We increase services, add students and end up with breakage [extra] in salary.” Roth called the net gain “much needed to help us have a sustainable budget.”
Morana explained that the district’s partnering “providers had already set up their programs but moving forward [the district would] have a better opportunity to establish classrooms that can be converted to the specifications of the grant.
Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker stressed that it would be “really important” to bring the program “to underserved areas” of the towns such as the Hilton neighborhood. “I know there is a empty pre-K space on Springfield Avenue,” suggested Baker.
Johanna Wright was effusive in her praise of Morana. “First of all you are on fire! You got me lit with all this money and the grant.”
However, Wright was concerned that the children be transported not by an outside vendor but by “our own fleet. I think it’s important with them being so small and tiny.”
Roth responded, “Unfortunately for this year the answer is no” regarding in-district transportation. But Roth explained that, although the district would “end up contracting out for this year,” it could bring the transportation back “in house” next year.
List of NJ School districts awarded PEEA Grants for 2018/19: