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Public Pre-K: Foundations for Success

Considering a switch from K12 to pre-K12? Superintendents share the secrets to solving three pre-K p

Superintendents share the secrets to solving three key pre-K program pitfalls: working with private providers, funding and a shortage of classroom space

Vermont Education Commissioner Ray McNulty calls it a BFO, or Blinding Flash of the Obvious. The "it" is that education leaders almost immediately see that public pre-kindergarten makes sense. Once they start talking about these programs and their impact, they're eager to implement programs in their own districts.

"If you think about public education, ...we look in one direction. We look toward the workforce," says McNulty, who spent 11 years as superintendent of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union in Brattleboro before being appointed to his current post in December 2001. Conversations surround how to prepare kids for the working world and how the working world can help schools. McNulty says we need to look toward the other end of our educational system, the front end.

To help change the public's thinking about who schools serve, McNulty used to send a letter to new parents, "welcoming the child to the class of 2018, or whatever," he says. In addition, a district person would call on the parents at home to bring them child development information. "To me it's the new frontier, and it's one that unfortunately I think has been too neglected." He suggests that, after years of talk about preschool, it's "time to stop talking about it and get going on it."

Actions toward public pre-K have been taken, but the impact has been relatively small. Forty-two states plus Washington, D.C., currently fund pre-K initiatives, with a total investment of nearly $1.7 billion in 1998-99, according to the Center for Universal Pre-K at New York City's Bank Street College of Education. However, three-quarters of spending is concentrated in just 10 states, and most of the programs across the country are offered only to at-risk children through Head Start and related programs.

During the past four to five years, the idea that pre-K ought to be publicly funded for all children has grown, says Faith Wohl, president of New York-based Child Care Action Campaign. Universal pre-K is one of three current focus areas for this non-profit organization. The growth in pre-K has been both in the number of districts offering programs and in dialogue among educators and the general public. "More than 80 percent of American voters [say they] believe it's a good thing to ...put public funding into school readiness programs," she says.

Why the belief in pre-K for all? Wohl cites the proliferation of brain research that has made educators and others aware of the importance of the first five critical years of life.

Another is that this country didn't make the grade with the 1988 national education goal of all children by 2000 arriving at school ready to learn. While the goal was endorsed by state and national leaders who laid out how it should happen, it was never funded as a national priority, Wohl says.

Today's focus on educational equity is a third crucial reason for support of universal pre-K. In New Jersey, for example, the courts decided that the lack of quality pre-K programs was a cause of inequity. "They're starting behind and cannot catch up," Wohl says of the many children who need quality pre-K.

When it comes to carrying the torch for pre-K, district leaders typically find themselves running uphill. Take a closer look at the most common challenges-and the creative strategies superintendents are using to squash them in the quest to bring pre-K to the masses.

Private Providers

Challenge: Independent preschools and daycare providers fear that the districts wants to replace them.

Solutions: Start talking. When McNulty began in the early 1990s to develop early intervention programs in Brattleboro, he opened lines of communication. He told preschool educators, "We don't want to do your jobs. We want to collaborate and help you." Once that hurdle was cleared, he adds, "They wanted very much to partner with us." Efforts included sending early childhood staff to daycare centers to demonstrate the kinds of activities that would help prepare children for kindergarten and beyond.

Form an advisory committee of stakeholders. For districts to use New York state funds for universal pre-K (programs that are offered to all families but are voluntary), this was a requirement, says Maria Benejan, director of the Center for Universal Pre-K. "Superintendents really need seek out the schools those kids are coming from," she adds.

Syracuse City School District, for example, formed an advisory committee of more than 40 people, including private providers, district staff and representatives from the state, community organizations, higher education, parents, local businesses and advocacy groups. "We met for several months, looked at the guidelines for the [state] regulation and put together a comprehensive implementation plan," says Donna DiSiato, assistant superintendent, curriculum and instructional services. The plan was discussed publicly before being finalized, she says.

Do a needs assessment. For communities where few pre-K opportunities are available, district efforts are especially welcome. In rural Pekin Community School District in Packwood, Iowa, the assessment found that many people running child-care facilities "said they were only doing it because somebody has to care for [the] kids," says Superintendent Roger Macklem.

Elizabeth (N.J.) Public Schools also discovered a shortage of pre-K opportunities. "We offered to pay [the community providers] to offer the same high-quality program offered by the public schools," says Superintendent Tom Dunn, who adds that only a few faith-based providers declined.

Make funds available to community non-profits. Another New York requirement, this gives sites the opportunity to offer the district's curriculum and be considered part of the district's overall pre-K program. Ralph P. Kerr, superintendent of Olean School District, says that these efforts have gone smoothly in his community because of previously established relationships with most of its non-profits.

Use the trust built from existing collaborations. This helped Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, Calif., win one of two available state grants to get pre-K funding for the coming school year. Superintendent (and former kindergarten teacher) Larry Aceves says that the central office, a converted warehouse, serves as a rent-free training center for Head Start, which is opening up its programs to all children as part of the grant. Also housed there are a free dental and health clinic, social service agencies and public meeting rooms. "It's a great collaboration vehicle because we give it to them rent-free and they provide services for us which we otherwise wouldn't get," Aceves says.

Open up your professional development activities to private providers. In Syracuse, providers who apply to be part of the district universal pre-K program must agree to use both the system's curriculum and professional development. Benejan points out that because teachers in the district and the community have the same challenges, sharing in-service days and conferences makes sense.

Money Talks

Challenge: In tough economic times, "every dollar is being competed for," says Michael Frechette, superintendent of Norwich (Conn.) Public Schools. "Throwing new programs in is a difficult sell"-especially programs that aren't mandated. Often, districts also have to reapply for funding to allow pre-K programs to continue.

Solutions: Be proactive in educating the district about pre-K. "My main job is that I have to sell the programs," Aceves says. "If you give the message loud and clear [to the school board, parents, legislators and other stakeholders], private funders will listen," he says.

In Ramapo Central School District in Hillburn, N.Y., which is in the process of implementing full-day pre-K and kindergarten programs, sharing the research was important in getting a mill levy for new construction passed. Superintendent Robert MacNaughton says his brain-research presentation for teacher groups has also helped in gaining support. "If you start having your school system become aware of [the research], it's amazing how many people start to pick up on an article or news report [and share their findings]." And Frechette, a former preschool special education teacher, provided the Norwich leadership team "with a binder many inches thick" containing research on early intervention.

Seek a variety of funding sources. These can range from national and state grants to collaborations with Head Start and other local programs. "Superintendents have to be willing to take risks, particularly because some of the funding is not stable," Benejan says. "Try something new, something different, something non-traditional." For example, administrators in Elgin (Ill.) School District U-46 applied for funding for the various blends of students who would benefit from the pre-K program, such as special education, at-risk and bilingual, says Superintendent Marvin Edwards.

When you think you've exhausted the funding possibilities, keep searching. "Teachers, principals and superintendents say, 'We're doing the best we can with what we're getting in the front door.' My answer to that is that we've got to get off the front steps of our schools," McNulty says. Have you really dug up every grant opportunity? Have you considered all non-traditional forms of funding?

Consider charging tuition. Jeff Eeling, principal of Pekin's elementary and middle school, explains that families have the option of paying $35 a month for a twice-a-week program or $45 monthly for three days. A sliding tuition scale allows families with financial need to pay as little as $7.50 a month. But Eeling cautions districts to keep the tuition low. When a family paying the minimum monthly fee in Pekin moved to a neighboring district, the public school tuition went up to $110 a month and the child ended up missing out on preschool.

Appoint a district-level director. In Norwich, Preschool Liaison Anne Krodel spends most of her time writing grants and visiting non-English speaking families in the community. She screens children and helps parents find family literacy programs and other services. This intimate knowledge of the community needs is useful to Krodel in the funding search.

Fight for promised funds. When a New Jersey court decision made preschool available for all three- and four-year-olds in 30 districts, many educators saw it as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to level the playing field between urban and suburban kids," says Dunn, whose district was one of the lucky chosen. But the state failed to fulfill its obligations, so Dunn and others sued. "I felt they were trying to implement this on the cheap, that they were not interested in high-quality programming," he says. After a state Supreme Court decision, the state's promise got back on track, and this year Elizabeth's pre-K programs will serve about half of the 4,200 children eligible by age. The district is still waiting for promised state construction funds, which will be used to build five new schools dedicated to pre-K.

Warn the community about potential funding cuts. Because Norwich may need to shift funding to accommodate for budget cuts this year, Krodel told parents to sign their children up for multiple programs. She also alerted the community's Head Start and private programs to the possible influx of applicants.

Start collecting data to show the impact of pre-K. Studies such as the 12-year longitudinal study of Georgia's universal pre-K program, which is being conducted by the Applied Research Center at Georgia State University, are helping to provide a large-scale view of the impact of public pre-K. But don't rely on other studies when you can begin collecting data on your own to help in securing future funding and community support, superintendents say. "As we get [children] better prepared to consume knowledge [through pre-K programs], we're going to have to get out of their way-literally!" says Aceves. "As we enrich that front end, I think it will blow everybody's socks off."

The Big Squeeze

Challenge: "As soon as we announced that we were doing the UPK program, we had the phones ringing," says Kerr, whose district has had a waiting list since it began offering pre-K four years ago. Lack of classroom space is a major reason that districts can't allow more students to enroll. "It's been a nightmare to try to find the space," says Dunn, whose district waiting list topped 1,000 last year. Parents are "told they have a right to this program, and then they're upset that there's not a seat for their youngster."

Solutions: Commit to finding the space at all costs. DiSiato continually finds herself comparing the search for classroom space to putting a man on the moon. While it's a gargantuan task because non-mandated programs don't get priority on space, she says, "It's not a matter of will we, but where and when we will find it. ...We will persevere even after hearing 'No' for the 10th time."

Rethink existing space. Each year, DiSiato's team approaches the elementary school principals to help identify opportunities to rethink and reconfigure space. In a couple of sites, this was possible when inclusion programs were implemented, freeing the special-education classrooms for pre-K. A space that had been used for storing teaching materials at another site was improved to provide the pre-K classroom with a restroom and other necessary configurations to meet codes. One elementary building's sixth grade was moved to the middle school so pre-K could fit.

Try out various enrollment methods to cut down the waiting list. "The first year ...we thought that first-come, first-serve would work. All hell broke loose," says Frechette. "The second year, I thought we'd get a little smarter and have a random drawing." This also didn't work. Now Norwich children with the most need, based on Title I assessment, are given priority for enrollment. Meanwhile, the town cut the waiting list further by offering full-day preschool at every elementary school.

Start from scratch. Pekin's program for ages two to five, which started 11 years ago, was first housed in a temporary trailer on school grounds. Besides problems such as leaks and drafts, the trailer wasn't hurricane-proof. "You'd see the storm clouds and we'd call child care and they'd come running across the parking lot," Macklem says. Last year, the board of education decided to build a new building. Close to $500,000 was taken out of savings for the construction of the storm-protected facility, which now sits alongside the school and serves newborn to five-year-olds, as well as up to age 12 in some afterschool programs.

Make do during construction. As part of the court decisions in New Jersey, Elizabeth is supposed to be given funds for 22 new schools during the next five years. Because they're already two to three years behind schedule, Dunn says the district has 50 temporary classroom trailers on public school grounds. In addition, they have partnered with several existing private providers to run programs in their facilities.

Ensure that off-campus sites are truly part of the schools. DiSiato says that Syracuse makes every attempt to connect its pre-K satellite sites to the neighborhood schools. "While it may be a quarter-mile from the school campus, teachers and parents know it's connected." The site name contains the school's name, and parents know which elementary school their children will attend. "We're providing continuity for children and our families," she says.

Whether it's partnering with community providers or searching for funds or classroom space, superintendents leading the charge with pre-K say that, most of all, administrators can't give up. "There [are] lots of allies out there. ...You just have to look for them," Aceves says. "This is one of those things that, as it materializes and comes to fruition, the long-term gains are going to be phenomenal."

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor.