This is the fourth story in a continuing series about New Jersey's public and private preschools.
When North Bergen Superintendent George Solter looks around at his neighboring towns, he sees school districts similar to his own, with high poverty rates and disadvantaged students who desperately need extra resources to succeed.
But he also sees one big difference: West New York, Union City and Jersey City are all Abbott districts with state-funded school budgets, while North Bergen’s student population is considered not quite poor enough to merit that designation. The district is far below “adequacy,” meaning its budget is too small too meet its educational needs as defined by a formula in the 2008 School Funding Reform Act.
“That’s my dilemma as a superintendent,” Solter said. “We're one of the most under-adequacy districts in the state.”
This year, though, his budget and his students got a rare boost. Thanks to a four-year federal grant, 17 low-income districts including North Bergen received funding to create or expand preschool programs that will prepare thousands of 4-year-olds for kindergarten and elementary school.
The districts have already begun turning half-day programs into full-day, hiring properly certified teachers, creating new bus routes, and enrolling more children. North Bergen and others are working on plans for new school buildings to house their expanded programs. Previously, most had only offered preschool to special-needs students, as required by law, along with a few regular education students chosen by lottery.
Other families had to keep their children at home until kindergarten, or if they could afford it, pay forthat may or may not have educational value.
The new classrooms meet the teacher qualifications, class size, curriculum, and other standards of the Abbott program. Research shows that those preschools have measurable benefits for low-income kids lasting at least through fifth grade. The children remain academically more advanced than their counterparts who did not attend Abbott preschools, are less frequently assigned to special-education classes, and are held back a grade less often.
The preschool expansion grant thus offers struggling non-Abbott districts an opportunity to give their community’s poorest children the kind of help that their counterparts in neighboring towns take for granted.
“Whatever money we can get to help us bridge that gap along the way, that's what we're looking for,” Solter said. “We look for grants everywhere that we can. We need help with technology, we need help with everything. So I'm not afraid to take a grant.”
The expansion has some limitations. Although the preschools in Abbott districts enroll both 3- and 4-year-olds, the federal money only covers 4-year-olds, even though two years of preschool has greater long-term benefits than one. The new funds also only pay for low-income children, while the Abbott districts enroll all kids in their towns regardless of family earnings.
In addition, the federal grant may only be renewed for up to four years, and the fate of the expanded preschools is undetermined beyond that point.
New Jersey is one of 18 states that were awarded a total of $226 million last year from the U.S. Department of Education’s Preschool Development Grants program. Two months ago Education Secretary Arne Duncanof grants to the same states, totaling $237 million.
New Jersey has been receiving $17.5 million in federal funds a year and contributing $13 million in state money annually. Some of the districts are also chipping in local funds. The grants are expected to be renewed for all four years, though Duncan noted that House and Senate committees have written spending bills that would eliminate them entirely.
“Republicans in Congress have put forward a budget that would shut down preschool for 100,000 kids,” he said during a press conference at a Virginia elementary school. “There's a growing bipartisan understanding in states that we must expand educational opportunity, starting with our youngest learners. For the sake of our kids and our country, I hope that bipartisan consensus will make its way to Washington sooner rather than later.”
The original grant decision wasby educators and advocates. Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the Newark nonprofit that helped craft the state’s preschool standards, called the funding announcement “incredible news for New Jersey’s children and families.”
“This means that thousands more New Jersey children will have access to a quality preschool that can help them arrive at kindergarten ready to learn,” she said last year.
The federal money falls well short of meeting all of the state’s early education needs, but anything that leads to the growth of high-quality preschool is welcome, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark.
“Any little federal money that we can get, we should take it and use it,” he said in an interview. “And what's good about this money is that it goes right into the Abbott framework, so we don't have to build a new program. We have the program; we just have to get the money for it, and expand it.”
Ellen Wolock, director of the Division of Early Childhood within the state Department of Education, said the agency was proud of the state’s high-quality preschools, while acknowledging the calls for a bigger expansion beyond the existing Abbott districts.
“Our efforts to expand such high quality supports and trainings to programs serving high needs preschoolers in other districts is developing more slowly,” she said in an email. “However, with a solid infrastructure in place, and with funding from the federal Preschool Expansion Grant, we are poised to meet our goal: To bring the components of the high quality preschool program to 17 high-need communities to maximize the learning and development of eligible 4-year-old children, including preschoolers with special needs, English language learners, and other vulnerable populations.”
The expanded preschools debuted this fall with 1,485 students, according to the DOE. The initiative aims to increase the number to 2,300 by 2018. Most of the districts had already been receiving state funds from two programs called Early Childhood Program Aid and Early Launch to Learning Initiative, but those programs do not require schools to follow all the Abbott requirements. They included many half-day programs and were allowed to have slightly larger classes, among other differences.
The expansion is proceeding gradually. Solter said North Bergen has 287 4-year-olds and 25 3-year-olds enrolled, about the same as last year. But before they were all in half-day classrooms; now 75 of the students stay for the full day, and that number will increase in coming years along with total enrollment.
He said his goal is to eventually double the number of preschoolers, which should not be difficult as families learn about the new free service available to them.
“We have parents that can't use half-day pre-K, because we're in a working-class locale. A parent can't pick up their kid at 12:30 or bring them to us as 12:30, so a full-day is where we have to go. We'll probably see a rise in the enrollment, because our parents are (currently) paying for full-day daycare,” Solter said.
“Give them to us,” he said, “and we would love to get them ready for kindergarten.”
Another beneficiary of the expansion grant, Galloway in Atlantic County, is receiving $1 million in new funding annually and has so far added about 10 children, Superintendent Annett Giaquinto said. The district already had full-day classes but it now offers busing for all children, a service that was previously only offered to special-needs students.
Ninety-nine of the children are housed at Pomona Preschool, a two-story former elementary school about a mile from the Atlantic City International airport, and another 11 are at a federally subsidized Head Start childcare center that recently joined the program. The district plans to continue adding another 15-student class every year until enrollment reaches 180, Giaquinto said, and is considering enrolling middle-income children whose parents are willing to pay tuition.
As in many districts, space is an issue. The district will have to add another classroom -- possibly a prefabricated structure -- in the coming months, and is looking to eventually move the whole school to a one-story building with bigger rooms.
“We face the challenge of not receiving a lot of state aid, so the preschool expansion grant money really was tremendous for us to be able to expand the program and add transportation in,” Giaquinto said during a tour of the school last month. “Although the charm of the school is wonderful, the two stories are a challenge. So we are looking in the future to see if can we move the program to a different facility.”
The building is a stately, white-columned structure with a newer addition in the back. Walking down the central hall, students, staff, and visitors pass under ceiling tiles decorated with multicolored handprints and the names of former students. The bulletin boards are decorated with photos of the preschoolers decorated in Thanksgiving themes.
The building’s older rooms are smaller than preschool standards call for, but they still accommodate bustling classes of up to 15 children, many of them in “inclusive” classrooms with both special-education and regular-education students.
In one inclusive room, teacher Kristen Swanson led her diverse group of 4-year-old students through a phonics session, tapping at an alphabet poster with a wand topped with a pointing hand. The children sat in a semicircle of blocky plastic seats and followed along while an assistant teacher, Katy Beshara, stood to the side and watched.
“K, kite, kk,” Swanson said, tapping at the poster.
“K, kite, kk!” the students sang out.
“Excellent. L, lamp, lll,” she read.
“L, lamp, lll,” they repeated.
“Right, remember L -- you kind of see your tongue a little bit?” she said. “M, man, mmm.”
“M, man, mmm,” the children chanted.
The roar of a plane from the nearby airport filled the room. Swanson moved onto a sound-guessing exercise, asking the children to read her lips.
“Watch. You have to look at my mouth. I'm not going to say it. Austin Brown, look up here,” she said, silently shaping her lips.
“P! B!” the children guessed.
“B! Because how do you know that? It's a what?” she asked.
“A popper,” one said.
“It's a lip-popper. You got it,” Swanson said.
At the other end of the building, teacher Sarah-Ashley Sharpe and two assistants worked in a larger, sunlit room, painstakingly guiding nine special-education students through a series of activities. Sharpe carried a set of cue cards depicting different symbols and actions, and occasionally flashed a card at a student to redirect his or behavior.
One boy stripped off his shirt and walked around, smiling, until Sharpe got him dressed again. Three children went to a Lego play area with an assistant. Sharpe sat down three others at a table and laid out a puzzle and plastic worksheets for them to trace lines on. Assistant Russell Akerlind kneeled at an open-topped water tank with three boys, showing them how to suck up water with basters and shoot at floating turkey cutouts.
“That’s it, Esnol. Squirt!” Akerlind said to one child. “Get that turkey! And squeeze! What does it say?”
“Gobble gobble gobble,” the boy said.
“I got it,” another child said, squeezing his baster.
“Good job,” Akerlind said.
The water table is one of a few sensory exercises common in special-education classrooms, Giaquinto said.
“Part of it is allowing them to follow the directions, to see that when they squeeze the water it will move the turkey, so they do a lot of different things like that,” she explained.
Giaquinto noted that Galloway is in an area that has been hit hard economically. The town’s population, which grew along with Atlantic City’s casino industry, has been battered as superstorm Sandy and casino closures devastated the region. Giaquinto said many low-income children will qualify for the increasing number of preschool slots in the next few years and will benefit tremendously from the teachers’ focused instruction.
“Our goal is to promote the importance of getting the children in early,” she said. “You have all the issues and all the research related to children who live in impoverished homes, so the sooner we get them into school and build the language and all of those other aspects, it helps them in the long run.”
Assuming that federal preschool supports survive congressional efforts to eliminate their funding, the expansion’s next great challenge will come when the grant is renewed for the last time in 2018. The state Department of Education acknowledged that the expansion classrooms’ long-term prospects are unclear.
“We are currently working on the issue of sustainability,” a spokesman said in an email.
In discussions with participating districts, the agency has struck a somewhat more optimistic note, suggesting the grant could be replaced with state funds after it expires.
“Certainly, the state's perspective, or at least the people from the Division of Early Childhood Education, is that when the federal money runs out, if the district has successfully implemented the program there will be consideration for increased preschool state aid,” Giaquinto said.
“Now of course someone saying that in spring of 2015 has absolutely no guarantee four or five years later, but that one of the things we were told,” she said.
So far, the Christie administration has shown little taste for big new investments in education, and has kept overall aid to districtsfor five years. Sciarra, who supports a much larger preschool expansion envisioned in the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), said he and other preschool advocates do not expect the administration’s position to change.
“There's a very pessimistic attitude, especially under Gov. Christie. Everybody has basically thrown in the towel,” he said. However, “people are looking at what's going to happen when Christie goes off the stage and we get a new governor who hopefully sees the benefit of this program. A lot of the people who are talking about running for governor have already talked about preschool.”
The 2008 law calls for expanding the main Abbott preschool program, which serves 35 districts, to an additional 90 low-income districts, including Galloway and North Bergen. Such an expansion would cost at least $360 million, boosting the total cost of the Abbott preschools to nearly $1 billion a year.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a likely gubernatorial candidate, has made preschool a central plank of his platform of greater investment in state services, and the Pre-K Our Way coalition of business people and education advocates has begun a lobbying campaign for the larger expansion. The cause is also a priority for President Barack Obama, who has spoken of creating universal free preschools for all low- and moderate-income children, and presidential candidate.
“We can’t say what exactly will happen in coming years,” the DOE spokesman said, in reference to the current expansion’s long-term prospects. “But there is a movement at the national level to invest in preschool programs like ours, as research has shown that investments in the early years (are) good for kids and will save money for taxpayers.”
As helpful as the new 17-district expansion will be for more than 2,000 children, its fate is ultimately tied to the larger project of creating free preschools for some 50,000 at-risk kids around the state, Sciarra argued.
“The federal money is helpful. It gets things moving,” he said. “But at the end of the day we're going to be back to having to get the SFRA expansion funded by the state.”