Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — At the very end of one of St. Albans Town Educational Center’s long corridors, sits a door with a sign reminding parents to bring in their children’s baby pictures. Opposite the door are cubbies with the smallest of jackets hanging on hooks.
Entering through the door, a teacher and classroom assistant move around the room. They are surrounded by the high voices, small hands and the busy bodies of three and four year olds as they go through their preschool day.
After sitting in a circle and listening to a story read by teacher Kelsey Rouleau, the students wander around the room to their preferred activities: drawing animals, looking in a mirror and determining the color of their eyes, playing in a sandbox, pretending to serve dinner by cooking plastic pizza on a miniature model stove, drawing on the white board, and more.
This scene, which played out Monday morning, is not exactly a new one for SATEC. According to Franklin Central Supervisory Union early childhood programs director Michelle Spence, FCSU and Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union have offered education for four year olds since the early 2000s. By 2007, St. Albans City, Town, Swanton, Highgate, Fairfield, Franklin and Sheldon all had pre-k programs in one form or another, often in conjunction with early childhood providers.
This year, however, is a little different: FCSU became the first supervisory union in the county to adopt early universal access to publicly funded pre-kindergarten education as laid out by Vermont Act 166. St. Albans Town, City and Fairfield schools all now offer 10 hours of public preschool for children ages three and older.
Though it doesn’t meet the Act 166 requirements, FNWSU now provides eight hours of preschool per week to three and four year olds, too.
“The only real difference (this year) is we added three year olds to the mix,” said Spence last week. For FCSU, it’s required more than an $300,000 addition to the early childhood budget, a changeup in classrooms, and bump in salaries. The difference it makes comes in the long run: the earlier a child gets in the classroom, the better.
“It’s a preventative strategy,” said Spence. “The more that we can do to start closing that gap early, the better chance those kids will start doing better later on.”
Though the concept of universal, publicly funded pre-kindergarten education may be a new one statewide, it was in the works at St. Albans City School as early as 2001.
According to Spence, the school offered tuition for four year olds to attend local partner childcare provider sites, such as Blooming Minds. At the time, she said, there was a way to include those students in the school’s pupil count, for which St. Albans City School received state education funding.
“There weren’t any rules around it at the time,” said Spence. Plus, she added, it was good for kids.
“It helped serve children and it helped with the way the funding formula worked,” she said. The main intent was to help students prevent difficult behaviors in the kindergarten and older grades, and to be able to focus on learning.
With success in St. Albans City, Spence said she began to coordinate with FNWSU and meet with other school boards. Now, all those schools, in addition to FCSU, have either in-school or partner-provided preschool education opportunities.
Decision to change
Act 166 was signed into law in 2014, and in November of that year, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcomb and Interim Secretary of the Agency of Human Services Harry Chen issued a “transition relief bulletin” that gave school districts the choice to implement universal pre-k in this fiscal year or the next.
FCSU didn’t take the extra year, and is the only school district in Franklin County to become an early adopter and accept three year olds into the classroom for 10 hours per week. Kevin Dirth, supervisory union superintendent, takes pride in that fact.
“I’m really proud that we went ahead and did this,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s good for the school and good for the kids.”
The change, of course, comes at a price.
With an expected additional 99 children added to its current 156 pre-k students at St. Albans City, Town and Fairfield schools, the early childhood program budget for the district increased from $1,125,636 to $1,437, 322 – about 28 percent. About $215,000 of that went directly towards teacher salaries and tuition fees for preschool students, said Spence.
At St. Albans City School, for example, there are now two full-day classrooms serving four year olds, making room for three year olds elsewhere.
In addition to increasing teaching staff, adding classrooms and bumping up pre-k sessions from two to three a week, Spence said the number of partner providers that FCSU gives tuition to are increasing since they are now qualified by the state.
“Any three- or four-year-old child in our district whose parents have them attending a pre-qualified site, basically anywhere, we will send $3,000 per child there,” said Spence.
That will be important in the future, she said, as more young children come to schools where there isn’t necessarily the space for them. “We’ve started talking about things like putting mobile units on school property,” said Spence.
Before getting to that point, the new provider pre-qualifying process has to be figured out first. Spence said the lack of explicit rules for the program so far has added a little hiccup in covering tuition expenses for parents. Spence expected everything to be sorted out by October, however, and said tuition would be back-paid to September 1.
These issues with space, tuition and other aspects of universal pre-k are most likely inevitable with early-adopters like FCSU. “This will be the year that we see,” said Spence.
So why do all this?
In the SATEC pre-k classroom on Monday, the 11 students present – all except one of whom were 3 years old – demonstrated various skills: sitting (somewhat) quiet and still in a circle, working together and asking nicely to use each other’s toys, and learning colors, numbers and how to follow instructions.
According to their teacher Rouleau, it was the students’ fifth day – they attend school in the mornings Monday through Wednesday.
“I feel like they’re doing exceptionally well,” she said. Rouleau added of pre-k education in general, “[It] certainly makes a big difference on what they’re capable of doing in their four-year-old year and kindergarten year – just in terms of the routine.”
She added that just being in the SATEC building is a big step for young students. “They’re going to be really familiar with this space,” she said.
Spence, who visits classrooms in both FCSU and FNWSU, said the difference is marked when three or four year olds don’t attend preschool and when they do. She noted how well adjusted students were on their second day of school this year after attending the year before.
“I was blown away,” said Spence. “It was like they had been there for weeks. It’s very obvious when they know what to do.”
And though she hasn’t heard much from parents, Spence said the presence of young ones in the classroom is proof enough. “They’re coming,” she said of the kids. “I assume [parents] are happy about it.”
Dirth said of the universal pre-k program across his school district, “it’s really taking off.”