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Pre-K grows, but not here

State plans fall short of helping all high-needs areas

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Homer pre-kindergartner Landen Brown, 4, leads his fellow students back to their classroom after lunch Jan. 31.

This story appeared in the February 10, 2018 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber, email us, or call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.

Addison Friedel collected number cards from her 15 classmates at the Homer pre-kindertargen Thursday morning, saying a polite “thank you” after each one was handed up.

The task was a reward for the preschooler girl with a thick mane of brown hair tied in a ponytail reaching below her shoulders. She had waited patiently for her partner in a number exercise to come back to her spot on the colorful floor mat.

The number-matching exercise was one of many that teacher Shari Powers gave her class Thursday, saying lessons like this introduce students to a curriculum that will be taught in-depth in kindergarten.

Not to mention the experience in a school setting, cafeteria and all, that prepares them for what lies ahead.

Homer school officials hope this program, which they started for the first time last year, will receive continued funding from the state. Next week they’ll get audited by the state so Business Administrator Mike Falls was reluctant to state any funding expectations Thursday.

Cuomo’s promise

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his 2019 budget address, unveiled plans to expand pre-K access for 3- and 4-year olds in high-needs districts — a category that includes Marathon, McGraw, DeRuyter and Cincinnatus. But the provision falls short of helping all high-needs areas, local officials say.

The funds would help more if they could offset their existing programs, rather than going only to new programs. That leaves districts relying on local funds to cover the cost of adding classrooms.

The funds wouldn’t have gone to the area’s existing pre-K programs in high needs districts like Marathon’s or a locally funded one DeRuyter Central School District had until last year because a federal “supplement not supplant” rule means districts can only supplement local expenses, not replace them, with state or federal aid.

They also won’t go to Cortland City School District, which gets a different stream of funding, Universal Pre-K funding, frozen in 2009-2010, precluding other districts from getting in.

Homer was one of those districts that couldn’t get in, Falls said, because districts like his “were late to the party.”

So Homer started a pilot program at its own expense in 2017-18, and now will get a reimbursement of state funds announced last October.

Falls and DeRuyter officials hope Cuomo’s call to expand pre-K will mean funding for their districts: DeRuyter hopes to renew a program it dropped for a year to qualify for funding, and Homer hopes to receive continued funding.

Pre-K: an early start

Pre-kindergarten helps children enter school ready to learn, shows a study by the Center for Public Education. Pre-K students studied across five states had significant gains in vocabulary and math scores over their peers who did not attend pre-K. They also are less likely to need early intervention and special education services.

Another study the center cites found 77 percent of low-income children of African descent who attended pre-K graduated from high school compared with 60 percent of the non-participants. Pre-K participants go on to be adults who are “less likely to be arrested for violent crimes, more likely to be employed, and more likely to earn higher wages than those in the comparison group,” the center states.

With the benefits so clear, McGraw Superintendent Melinda McCool did not have to be persuaded to add a pre-k program in 2017-18, ahead of state funding being awarded for it.

The state announced in December McGraw would get $260,512, which McCool said would turn into a continuing allocation.

A strategic move

DeRuyter dropped its pre-K for the 2017-18 school year to save $83,400, said Business Administrator Jim Southard.

It was a strategic move. The district hopes that by not having a pre-K for the year, it can receive state funds to reinstate the program in 2018-19. Superintendent Charles Walters hopes to hear whether the district can apply come June.

“We are working now at getting everything ready so when it does open we can put our application in and move forward,” Walters said.

The funding is $8,000 per student, Southard said, and the district will ask for enough to cover two full-day classrooms, 12 to 13 kids per classroom. Like McGraw, it would be a continuing allocation.

DeRuyter, being a higher level of need district, has an edge up in the state’s consideration of which districts to fund, Southard said.

High needs defined

Marathon, McGraw, DeRuyter and Cincinnatus are all deemed high-needs districts, according to the state Education Department’s 2017-18 Foundation Aid report. Homer, Dryden, Tully, Moravia and Groton were not.

Student density, free and reduced lunch rates and the number of English as a Second Language students all play into the designation, which creates an index. A score above 75 is considered high needs; DeRuyter’s is 89.8.

Southard said that gives DeRuyther an advantage in getting funds over, say, a Groton district, where Southard is also the business administrator. But it wasn’t enough of an advantage to get funding for its existing pre-K programs absent discontinuing its program.

This was a risk Marathon Superintendent Rebecca Stone wasn’t willing to take.

Juggling needs

Stone didn’t want to gamble on letting 18 children go without pre-K for a year in the hopes of receiving funds the following year.

So now even though the district would qualify as a high needs district, it can’t apply for the funds because it already operates two sections of pre-K.

“In order for us to actually get the grant, we would have to drop one of the sections that is paid for through local funds and apply and wait and see if it ever happens, then reinstate it and historically that doesn’t go so well,” Stone said.

Stone wishes the state would engineer a work-around.

“If he (the governor) could take some of the burden off us by allowing us to … pay for the second section of UPK through grant funds, that would free up our local share and we could use that to pay for other things in our budget,” Stone said.

The district gets about $85,000 from the state for the $100,000 cost of one section of pre-K. The Marathon district pays the entire cost of a second section.

Cincinnatus not complaining

Cincinnatus, another high needs district, gets about $150,000 for pre-K, said Superintendent Steve Hubbard, but still needs about $33,600 in local money to pay for two sections. If those funds were freed up for other areas in the budget, it would be about nearly 1 percent of a $3.7 million property tax levy. But Hubbard’s not complaining.

“The governor is looking for funding for schools that are starting up or don’t have a UPK and I’m hopeful that will happen,” Hubbard said. “It won’t help us but it will help kids in New York, which is important.”

Cortland City School District, which runs a full-day universal pre-K program that serves about 130 students, is not affected by the governor’s plan, said Superintendent Michael Hoose. That’s because it started its program 17 years ago, before UPK funding froze.

It also has other funding sources. The district gets about $450,000 yearly from the state that it allocates to community partners like Head Start, which provide pre-K classes at Barry, Parker, Randall and Smith elementary schools. The partners then charge parents for the other half of the day, he said.

Local allocations

Back in Powers’ classroom, the $134,322 the state provided funds both Powers and her classroom assistant, Janie Hughes, as well as all the classroom materials the 16 kids would use and the lessons they learn.

Sitting on the colorful mat, 16 children made the “h” sound, holding up their hands to feel their breath. Sixteen children made the “f” sound. Sixteen children scoured classroom to find examples of the lower case “n.”

Then they sat at tables to identify shapes and colors and cut them out or to color hearts red.

The children, who are usually 5 by the end of the year, make huge strides toward independence, Powers said. They ask for help less often, or they turn to a friend, instead.

“They learn if they can do it they need to do it,” she said, from zipping up their coats to go outside or cleaning up.

“They show themselves they can be successful and they are doing it over and over so there is no expectation out there that they need help,” she said. Instead the mindset becomes, “I can do it so I will do it.”

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