By Tessa Raebeck
Now in its fourth year, the Sag Harbor School District Pre-K program has seen tremendous growth — and hopes to expand further.
At Monday’s board of education meeting, Sag Harbor Elementary School (SHES) principal Matt Malone and assistant principal Donna Denon hosted an educational workshop on the pre-K program, updating the board on how far it’s come and where it hopes to go, as well as the continued benefits of having an in-house program.
“As a community,” said Malone, “We’ve had a long commitment to the idea of pre-K. We all have a deep understanding of the importance and value of the pre-K experience for boys and girls. We’ve really looked at it as an investment, a sound investment.”
When looking to start a program for the 2010-2011 school year, the district decided its best option was to partner with SCOPE Education Services, a not-for-profit private organization permanently chartered by the New York State Board of Regents to provide such services to school districts.
The district signed a contract with SCOPE to provide pre-K for every eligible four year old in Sag Harbor. The program follows a 180-day school year with New York State certified teachers and teaching assistants.
In its inaugural year, the pre-K had 10 students in one class, a morning session housed at SHES. The state previously provided funding for districts that wanted to start a new pre-K program, however, that funding was cut off the year Sag Harbor started its pre-K. The first year, the program was funded by tuition paid by parents and “generous support from members of the community who actually helped with scholarships,” Malone said.
“We all knew that really one of the inherent goals of a pre-K run by a public system is that we make sure all kids, regardless of their socioeconomic status, would have this opportunity,” he added.
In 2011-2012, the district began to fund the program — which had grown to 41 students — through its annual budget at a cost of $112,750. The program currently has 32 students and a budget of $88,000 for 2013-2014. It is projected to have 20 to 35 students next year.
Housed at Pierson Middle School, the program currently has both a morning session and an afternoon session. The pre-K is increasingly connected to the district as a whole, the administrators said.
“Partnership grows every year because our school embraces the kids and what’s happening more and more,” said Denon.
Malone said an added benefit of having an in-house program is that it provides the opportunity for the school to identify students who need some form of intervention early on. If a child has a speech impediment, for example, the school has an early opportunity to bring in speech pathologists, start conversations with parents and begin helping the child.
“We’ve been able to help a lot of students who possibly might not have gotten that early intervention,” Malone said.
Board member Daniel Hartnett added that children from non-English speaking homes also benefit greatly from a public pre-K program.
He said in addition to the children benefiting from coming into an environment where English is spoken at a young age, the program is also the first point of contact for many parents who come from other countries and educational systems.
“It goes a long way to breaking down those barriers,” replied Malone. “When we look at the numbers since the inception of our program, the one group that we have seen the biggest jump in is the students that come from non-English speaking homes.”
“It’s paying off tremendously for them educationally, but also socially,” said Malone, adding, “We’re always very proud of seeing our pre-K kids and the successes that they have.”
Malone said although his evidence is anecdotal, he has observed that students who attend the district’s pre-K as opposed to outside programs are less likely to need special attention down the line, since they are identified early in-house.
The Sag Harbor pre-K program now represents roughly 40 percent of the next year’s incoming Kindergarten class, Malone said.
Denon said the next steps are increasing enrollment in the program, improving programming and exploring extending session times, perhaps to 1:30 or 2 p.m.