Since 1998, elementary school principal Joan Frisicano has advocated opening a Sag Harbor pre-kindergarten program. Over the years, she saw neighboring school districts like Southampton, East Hampton and even Amagansett set up their own pre-k curriculums, but year after year the village functioned without a program. In Sag Harbor, it seems covering the initial costs for pre-k — priced roughly at $260,000 — was a hard sell to village taxpayers.
Â In 2008, Frisicano believed some federal Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) funds would open up to the school district, but she faced another hurdle: finding room to accommodate the three and four-year-old students. With classroom space at a premium in the elementary school, Frisicano researched possible locations and seemed to find a perfect match at the Bridgehampton School.
Â Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said in the past few months, the two school districts have been analyzing ways to share and economize services by working together. Running a joint pre-k program was one such idea Dr. Gratto discussed with Bridgehampton School’s superintendent Dr. Dianne Youngblood and principal Jack Pryor in the beginning of April.
Â “Bridgehampton has the space and they currently have a program with a small number of students … They can accommodate more children,” said Frisicano during a presentation to the Sag Harbor School Board on Wednesday, April 22. Based on current kindergarten enrollment, Frisicano added that she believes Sag Harbor has roughly 65 children who would be eligible for a pre-k program in the next couple of years.
Â “We found that the foundation of our pre-k curriculum was very similar to the curriculum at Sag Harbor,” said Bridgehampton School Principal Jack Pryor in an interview on Monday. “Joan [Frisicano] and I have a similar education philosophy.”
Â Bridgehampton runs a half-day pre-k program for three-year-olds and a full day program for four-year-olds. There are currently 13 children enrolled in the program and Pryor said the school has the capacity to absorb 20 additional students. Pryor and Frisicano have discussed the idea of scheduling two sessions for a joint pre-k course. One class with eight students would be held in the morning, and the other session with 12 students would be held in the afternoon.
Â Currently, the Bridgehampton school funds the pre-k program through the budget, but would be willing to apply for UPK monies jointly with the Sag Harbor School District.
Â “We are allowed to file a joint application … UPK was very excited,” reported Pryor. “That is the kind of program they hope to get started — a collaborative program where the money is crossing district lines.”
Â But state UPK representatives recently relayed word to Frisicano that resources for start-up pre-k programs have already dried up and UPK can’t provide adequate funding for the 2009-2010 school year. In the past, UPK offered the school district $2,700 per child, but capped the number of eligible students at 20.
Â “UPK has a lottery program [for the 20 children]. So you are pulling names out of a hat,” said Frisicano. “Other districts have told me it’s quite a scene when they do that.”
Â “That seems counterproductive,” said school board president Walter Wilcoxen at the meeting.
Â Although the school district has previously balked at funding the pre-k program, PTA president Chris Tice asked at the meeting if the creation of such a program would end up saving the district money in the long term.
Â “Research shows that the earlier we can get kids into the system, it will save us dollars as they go through the system … The earlier you can catch a [learning] difficulty the earlier you can remediate it,” said Frisicano.
Â She added that children who enter kindergarten with learning or language difficulties often need academic intervention, at the expense of the school district, further down the road.
Â Considering annual increases in operating costs, curtailing the budget is a pressing issue for school officials on the East End. As many local schools cover a small geographic area and support a modest student body, Dr. Gratto noted that sharing services is a viable way to maintain program value while reducing spending.
Â “By sharing services with Bridgehampton we can offer high quality service at a lesser cost to the district,” said Dr. Gratto.
Â So far Dr. Gratto, Dr. Youngblood and Pryor have discussed eight separate ideas for consolidating services, including creating a joint pre-k program, employing a technology coordinator and director of special education for both districts, and sharing fields and academic programs. In addition, Bridgehampton was looking into hiring Sag Harbor to prepare its food, as the school now contracts with an outside company to do so. Gratto admitted, however, that the school doesn’t currently have the capacity to provide meals for both schools.
Â “We have talked with Bridgehampton about sharing a number of services but we haven’t found a match yet,” reported Dr. Gratto. “None of the points we discussed will work out for various reasons — at least not in the near future.”
Â In terms of forming a district partnership, Pryor seems to be on the same page as Dr. Gratto.
Â “Districts on the East End need to work together,” said Pryor. “The economy is down … Taxes are up … We need to be more fiscally responsible. Rather than trying to be an all inclusive district [who offers everything], why don’t we share what we have?”