Pre-kindergarten at Center School, Old Lyme (Credit: Lyme-Old Lyme Schools)

Lyme-Old Lyme Becomes First Rural School District to Offer Universal Pre-K

OLD LYME — With the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Center School will offer five pre-kindergarten classes, enough to accommodate interested parents with pre-kindergarten age children in Lyme-Old Lyme as well as additional out-of-district students.

The new program is expected to cost district taxpayers $180,000 in renovations and $208,000 per year to employ two new special education certified teachers and four teaching aides.

On May 7, the Region 18 budget was approved — showing support for this plan — by an almost 2:1 margin.

A Priority Targeting Lower Incomes

“Universal pre-k,” has been a major initiative across the state of Connecticut and the nation over the last decade. Making quality early education more affordable is broadly popular among voters, supported by 82% of Republicans, 85% of independents and 97% of Democrats according to a 2017 survey of 1000 voters throughout the country. President Barack Obama pledged $75 billion for public preschool for children at or below 200% of the poverty line in his 2014 State of the Union Address.

Providing free public preschool for lower-income families was a priority during Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s administration. By the start of the 2014-2015 school year, 1,020 pre-k seats were opened across the state. Over the following five years, at a cost of $51 million per year, an additional 4,000 seats have been opened. Today, nearly all of the lower-income high-need districts have universal preschool available free of charge.

Broader Adoption

Center School, Old Lyme (Credit: CT Examiner)

More recently wealthier and rural districts have also begun to adopt this preschool initiative. West Hartford has been a leader with 15 public preschool classrooms open across their eleven elementary schools in town.  

In Lyme-Old Lyme a planned pre-k expansion will allow children who will turn 4 by December 31st of the enrollment year to attend preschool for free. It will be the first non-urban district in the state to implement universal preschool.

“The superintendent in Lyme-Old Lyme is really a visionary,” said Beth Bye, the Commissioner of Early Childhood. “Everyone agrees the early years matter, that they are a good investment. But, it’s really hard to find leaders that will fight and make the case that this is a good investment.”

Supporting Research

There are several studies, mostly completed in lower-income, urban areas, that support better outcomes in the short term for students who attended a high-quality preschool program. A 2018  report by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers Graduate School of Education analyzed 8 state-funded pre-k programs, and concluding that all pre-k programs had a significant effect on emergent literacy at kindergarten entry.

“The research is pretty solid in finding that we can make a difference with pre-k, but not every program does,” said Steve Barnett, a Board of Governors Professor and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “It really matters what you do … the key is really intentional teaching, one on one or in small groups.”

Parents Raise Concerns

The new program is not without controversy, with several parents and residents voicing concerns regarding the lack of research on the effectiveness of pre-k in school districts like Region 18, that a program designed for 50% special needs students will not be appropriate for a classroom with a much lower ratio, and that the program has been forced upon them.

Although the 2.29% increase in the education budget requires a town-wide vote, town residents cannot vote on specific line items in the budget. Those decisions are made by the Board of Education and Region 18 School Superintendent Ian Neviaser.

“The vote is for the budget not for pre-k,” Neviaser said. “If the increase doesn’t pass we will have to look at our budget. We have already found some savings in the proposed budget that would not impact programs and facilities and would allow us to include pre-k.”

Parents like Mona Colwell and Kim Thompson who have both testified at the Board of Education feel as though their concerns are not being properly addressed. They have been arguing that the program remains undeveloped, and that money should be spent first on deferred maintenance and repairs to existing schools and facilities.

“The pre-k expansion is a program that could be great if we were properly funding our existing programs and facilities for our K-12 students but we’re not fully funding them. It could be great if the program were fully developed but it’s not fully developed,” Colwell said. “Despite Ian saying everyone is for this expansion, we’ve found plenty of people who are not for it, including the 313 people who have signed the two petitions asking the Board of Education to better prepare the pre-K expansion program for our community.”

Several residents of Lyme and Old Lyme have complained that the money could be better spent on maintenance of the existing schools, including cracked tennis courts and a peeling gym floor. Neviaser has assured residents that the high school tennis courts will be replaced in June 2020, and that middle school will receive a new gym floor, along with a new heating and cooling system.

Neviaser said that plans for adding universal preschool have been in the works for a few years. The main local driver of the initiative, according to Neviaser, was input from kindergarten teachers who report that students are showing up with very different backgrounds. Universal pre-k would put everyone on the same playing field going into the start of their education.

This approach has been driving efforts across the globe, according to Barnett. If kindergarten teachers are focused on the kid who didn’t get the basics, Barnett explained, the other children would get as much attention. “If you can get everyone on the same level before kindergarten begins, that school year will be much more productive.”

Declining Enrollment

According to Neviaser, the district has timed the addition of the program to take advantage of staff attrition and an overall decrease in enrollment in order to minimize the impact on the budget. These reductions include 7.25 full time equivalents, as well as 14 sections of art and music.  Middle school music teacher Laura Gladd’s full-time position, a topic of significant concern, will remain. In the last seven years, enrollment has decreased by 165 students.

Around 20 people who considering moving to Old Lyme have called since the district announced the program, according to Neviaser. “We think having strong programs like expanded pre-k will attract parents and families to move here.”

“A lot of communities are competing for young families to move to town. Young parents flock to communities with public preschool,” Bye said. “If Old Lyme has public preschool and East Lyme doesn’t, that is worth $10,000 a year for a family.

26 out of 65 eligible children in the district were registered for the program by May 7. Out-of-district parents enrolled an additional child and will pay tuition. In total, the Lyme-Old Lyme pre-k program for 4-year-olds will accommodate 48 students including the current peer-to-peer program.

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