By Claire Walla
Last year, when the Sag Harbor School District instituted its first Pre-K program, it was celebrated by members of the school board for offering a service that has been much needed in the Sag Harbor community. Families were charged a monthly fee of $275 for the services, which were contracted out through SCOPE Education Services.
But, as far as Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone and Assistant Principal Donna Denon are concerned, the goal was always to make the program free-of-charge.
And this year it is.
“Over the years, based on the research that we’ve done, we’ve been aware that cost has been prohibitive to parents,” Malone explained.
Last year’s Pre-K class had 13 students, many of whom entered the program when new families moved into the district mid-year. Denon referred to this as the “winter surge,” which she said tends to happen pretty regularly year to year.
But at the start of this school year — when it was announced the district would be offering Pre-K for all Sag Harbor four-year-olds for free — the program saw a massive surge.
This year’s Pre-K class has 39 students. And, according to Denon, there’s still room to grow. The district budgeted at the end of last year for a program that could hold up to 60 students — which equates to the average size of the school’s kindergarten classes. Denon said she’s hoping the program will grow in the coming months, particularly for the afternoon session.
As it stands, the program has enough participants for two morning classes (from 8:45 to 11:15 a.m.) and one in the afternoon (from 12:30 to 3 p.m.). Because of this, the school employs one full-time teacher, Mindy Reyer, who teaches both a.m. and p.m. classes; and one part-time teacher, Kate Montaldo, who taught at Stella Maris until it closed last year and who only teaches in the morning. With an extra session, both teachers would be full-time, which Denon said SCOPE would be “open to.” (Technically, SCOPE employs both teachers and the two assistant teachers.)
According to Denon, the main reason some parents have opted out of the Sag Harbor Pre-K program is because the time is too restrictive. The program is currently set-up for half-day options only, which means parents are only able to take advantage of the program for two and a half hours each day.
“We are fully aware that some families are not able to participate in our program because it’s not full-day,” Malone explained. “But the decision we made this year was to provide a half-day program for some families, and we hoped that they would come, and we’re hoping [the program] will evolve. We will continue to consider a full-day option.”
Denon agreed, saying a full-day program would be ideal, but the district has to start somewhere. “It’s kind of like taking baby steps to get to the next place,” she stated.
Malone reiterated that a universal Pre-K program has been a long time coming for this school district.
“It’s gotta be pushing 20 years,” he indicated. “[Former elementary school principal] Ms. [Joan] Frisicano and a group of teachers and parents started the conversations, and really wanted to get a Pre-K program going in the district.”
But the idea never took flight “for a variety of reasons,” Malone continued. “Cost is always a factor.”
The district is paying $180,000 to run the program, a cost that was approved by taxpayers last May along with this year’s operating budget. Though it only affords the district to run a half-day program, Malone said the benefits are invaluable; it not only allows students to foster a love of learning before entering kindergarten, it allows them to grow familiar with their surroundings and the patterns that regulate school life.
“It allows the kids to have that consistency [of schedule], and an exposure to how we do things here in the district,” Malone stated.
Last year, the Pre-K program was held within two classrooms at the elementary school that had been refurbished with pint-sized utilities and a private play area for the four-year-olds; this year the program is being held in two newly refurbished classrooms within the middle school wing of the Pierson campus. While Denon said the ideal is for the Pre-K program to be housed at the elementary school, issues of space forced the program to cross Jermain. However, she added it’s thriving in its new location.
Just as Pre-K students did last year, “the students will use what’s available to them at the middle school,” Denon explained. “They will listen to band practices, use the courtyard, and use the middle school gym when it’s free. We’re also hoping some of the ‘big kids’ will come in and read to them [during free periods or after school].”
School Board Member Ed Drohan, who has been pushing for a Pre-K program in the district, has seen what he said are the benefits of the program first-hand. Drohan is in the classroom nearly everyday to pick-up his four-year-old grandson.
“I think they’re off to a really great start,” he said. “Character development is one of the things that’s great about this school district. And the fact that they seem to be starting that with the kids at a younger age — to get along with each other, to understand one another — that’s great.”