by Phil Dodd
MONTPELIER — Partly in response to a state law requiring that school districts pay for 10 hours of preschool per child per week, a classroom at Union Elementary School has been converted into a preschool classroom serving about 28 children in two shifts a day. The preschool, which opened at the start of the school year, “has been a huge success for the school,” according to Union School Principal Chris Hennessey. “The parents are loving it.”
There had been concern that the Union preschool would be oversubscribed, so the school was prepared to hold a lottery last summer to fill its preschool slots, but that did not prove necessary, Hennessey said. “We still have a couple of openings,” he noted. As an alternative to going to the Union preschool, parents can choose to receive a rebate for the expense of sending their children to a private, state-qualified preschool such as Turtle Island or the Family Center. Parents this year are receiving $3,092 per child for about 45 Montpelier children aged three to five to attend such private preschools this year, he said. “We do have preschool choice in Montpelier, and it is working really well,” Hennessey said.
The Union preschool is only available for 2 to 3 hours a day, and some parents need longer coverage. Parents using a qualified private preschool can pay for a longer day and use the $3,092 rebate to cover part of their bill. The rebate is not available for daycares or preschools that are not approved by the state. Union was able to dedicate a room for preschool because the fifth grade moved over to the Main Street Middle School a couple of years ago, Hennessey said. Even with that move, the school is “space-challenged” because the school continues to see larger classes of 85 to 95 students entering kindergarten each year, he said. Including the 28 children in the preschool, there are now about 440 students at Union Elementary School.
“That’s more than we had six years ago when the fifth graders were here,” Hennessey observed. Union School is one of the largest elementary schools in the state, he added. Act 166 was passed by the Legislature in 2014 and signed into law by Governor Peter Shumlin. It provides universal publicly funded pre-kindergarten education for a minimum of 10 hours per week for 35 weeks annually for all three, four and five year old children who are not enrolled in kindergarten. The Legislature did not provide any new funding for the program, so the money for Act 166 comes from the existing state Education Fund, which is funded primarily by state and local property taxes. “It is one of those dreaded unfunded mandates,” Hennessey said. But the principal thinks preschool education is important for young children and is a strong supporter of preschool. He said Union was fortunate to find and hire four high-quality educators — including two preschool teachers, a special educator and an educational assistant — when it started its program earlier this year. The morning and afternoon sessions at the Union preschool have 16 available slots each. In the morning session, 10 slots are reserved for children who qualify for Head Start, which has income restrictions. Head Start, a federal program, provides funding for half of a teacher’s salary, Hennessey said. However, the total cost of the Union preschool per student is still higher than the $3,092 per child rebate amount, he said. “We think this program gives us a lot of bang for the buck,” Hennessey said. “We are getting more kids in earlier, creating a better bridge to kindergarten and requiring less intervention later.”
Looking farther into the future, Hennessey speculated parents may start to wonder if the Union preschool could expand to cover more hours and/or more children. But he noted a full day preschool would have only 16 children in a classroom, compared to the 32 that can be handled in two shifts, so there would be extra staff costs. Expansion would require community discussion, Hennessey said. The fourth grade can’t be moved to the Main Street Middle School, so room to expand would probably have to be found somewhere other than the existing Union School, he added. Expansion of hours would also create competition for the private preschools in the Montpelier area that offer full day preschool. Right now, the Union preschool is serving a “niche” market of parents who only want or need two hours per day of preschool, Hennessey said. Sign-up for next year’s preschool will be held in the spring, when the school will use various means to reach out to parents.
There will be fewer openings at Union next year, perhaps requiring a lottery, because as many has half of the children currently enrolled in the Union preschool could continue there next year. To qualify for preschool next year (or for a rebate to cover private preschool), a child will have to turn three years old by Sept. 1, 2017. Hennessey said that beginning in March, parents of young children can watch for information about next year’s preschool sign-up on the Union School website at mpsvt.org/ues. If parents have questions, he invited them to call him at 225-8200.