Schools consider free pre-K
By Katy Savage
Faced with declining enrollment, rising costs, and community need some schools are offering full time preschool for free.
Voters in Windsor Central Supervisory Union approved the $50,000 program 926-432 on Town Meeting Day, March 5, as part of the $18 million school budget.
“It makes our area attractive to families as a place to live,” said Superintendent Mary Beth Banios.
The pre-K program will add up to 80 students in the district. Banios said in addition to making the area attractive to move to, the program will fill a need within the community.
Access to child care is a national issue.
“There’s a great need,” said Department of Children and Families Deputy Commissioner Reeva Murphy.
On average, in Vermont it costs about $219 a week for a child to attend full time pre-K, infants in daycare costs $240 a week and toddler care costs $232 a week, according to a 2017 study from the Vermont Department of Children and Families.
“One of the things we know from census data is 70 percent of kids under 6 have all parents working outside the home,” Murphy said.
The state has partnered with local organizations to study needs and access to child care. Murphy said needs vary by school district.
In 2015, school districts were mandated to provide 10 hours of free pre-K a week for 35 weeks under Act 166.
However, Barstow Memorial School Principal Bianca McKeen said the 10 hour pre-K model doesn’t work for all families.
McKeen said the school recently surveyed families to understand their needs; although some liked the model, “Some families weren’t accessing it because they need full-time care for their child,” McKeen said.
McKeen said the school is considering partnering with local child care providers and may create a full-time daycare and pre-K program in the future.
Meanwhile, the Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union started offering full-time pre-K last year.
There are 28 students in the program now.
“It’s great for all kids to get into the routine – just getting used to being at school,” said Rutland Town School Principal Deborah Rodolfy.
Ludlow Elementary also has a universal pre-K program, which was established 10 years ago folllowing a sharp enrollment decline.
“There was a need,” said Ludlow Elementary Principal Karen Trimboli. “Ludlow didn’t have enough child care providers in the town. We wanted to… give kids a place that’s safe.”
Enrollment at Windsor Central has declined the past decade from a high 1,138 in 2009 to a low of 986 in 2014.
The Windsor Central full-time pre-K will follow school day hours and will be open to children ages 3 and 4. The program will be an extension of what is currently offered.
The district currently offers free pre-K at 20 hours a week with a paid afternoon. The district will forgo about $32,000 in revenue to begin the free program next year.
“We believe that strong pre-K programs will support strong elementary schools,” said Jennifer Iannantuoni. “It is our sincere hope that by offering free pre-K to families who live in our district, more children will attend full time pre-K and more families will be attracted to live in this district.”
The Reading Elementary School building, Barnard Academy, Killington Elementary and Woodstock Elementary can each accommodate up to 20 students.
Banios said the program will help students catch up with peers and be ready for kindergarten from a younger age.
“What we know about pre-K education is that it’s really important for children’s development,” she said.