On Foreign Turf: Pre-K in Public Schools

How one superintendent found various ways to initiate preschool programs in his district by LEONARD J. LUBINSKY

Starting a preschool in a public school system is not easy. Preschools are a little foreign to our public school experience.

In the four-district supervisory union in rural western Massachusetts, of which I was superintendent for 25 years, we started four preschools in four different ways. At that time we had to persuade people that preschools belonged in K-12 systems. Today we have to persuade them that the good preschools do require that children be treated in ways that are appropriate for their age and development.

In New Salem/Wendell, we entered the preschool business in the late 1970s in cooperation with Head Start, using a two-room school left empty when we built a new school. Our cooperation with Head Start ended two or three years later, in part because we wanted all our children to be eligible to participate in our preschool, not just those who met the standard for poverty.

In Erving, an industrial town with a substantial tax base, we began a preschool when the kindergarten enrollment declined, which opened up space in the building and freed up some funds to support the program. In Shutesbury, we began our program when we realized it was less expensive and more popular to create a program to which typical children paid a low tuition than it would have been to transport and pay the high tuition charge for one special-needs child to be served in another community. We were small enough so that we served most children in the community.

In Leverett, we started the program the conventional way when the state provided competitive funds to school districts that offered to plan a preschool program.

Equal Opportunity
We initiated these programs because I believed in them. My own children had benefited from nursery school. I realized that parents with resources sought opportunities for their youngsters to be with other children in a moderately structured situation. What was good for the children of people with financial means ought to be good for the children in my school district.

It was not easy to persuade the governing committees to spend money for preschool programs. It wasn’t even easy to get them to accept state money for that purpose. I claimed, in those days, that we saved money with our early childhood program. The argument was compelling for money-conscious school committees as they considered how to educate special-needs students.

In these small schools, none of which enrolled more than 230 students, we might have one or two special-needs children in an age cohort who would require early childhood education under federal law. We determined it would cost as much to transport a single special-needs child to an out-of-district program and pay tuition for that child as it would to create an entire program at one of our schools. That was especially so because we would rely on parent transportation or existing transportation intended for K-6 children for the child to attend his or her own school. In some cases, we charged a modest tuition from parents of children who did not have disabilities.

School committees, in those days, were a bit harder to persuade when we spoke of the long-term academic and social benefits of early childhood education. It was one thing for us to envision actual costs saving by creating our own programs for children with special needs who we were mandated to serve. It was quite another to serve at-risk children who were just as needy, but for whom there was no mandate. For these children, the academic and social benefits of early childhood education would come over the long term. Benefits to come a long time in the future were less certain and less tangible for school committee members and finance committees.

Local child-care providers were still harder to convince. They worried we were taking children and staff away from them. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts wanted us to work with family day-care providers and the one center-based provider in our district. A state grant allowed us to provide subsidies to families of preschool-age children attending day care when they were not in our preschools. The grant also helped us provide professional development and support for substitutes for the day-care providers, who have become supporters of the school district’s preschool program.

Unhealthy Pressures
In recent years we haven’t had to fight for the existence of our preschools, which today serve nearly 100 3- and 4-year-old children. Instead, we have to ensure that the impact of standards-based curriculum and its associated testing does not create pressure for preschools to become more academic and less developmentally appropriate.

That pressure can come from parents who want their children to read as soon as possible. It can come from school committees that want our test scores to be higher in 4th grade. It can come from ourselves--the school administrators and school staff who want to be sure children do well on tests. We have to remember that pushing preschoolers to read before they are ready to read is counterproductive to those goals. Young children want to learn. We have to be skillful enough to teach them when they are ready.

The Massachusetts Department of Education is helping us deal with those pressures. The state Board of Education’s Early Childhood Advisory Council is preparing standards that could apply to all early childhood programs in Massachusetts, not only those under the aegis of the Department of Education.

The council has gone beyond the conventional health and safety issues. In a format that is both clear and positive, the council is creating developmentally appropriate standards for English/language arts, mathematics, history and social science and science and technology (mirroring the areas for which standards exist in Massachusetts for testing in grades 4, 8 and 10). Once these standards for early childhood education are publicly available (which is expected as soon as the Massachusetts Board of Education begins the process to consider them for approval), we will have a valuable tool for ensuring the curriculum for all preschool children in the commonwealth is developmentally appropriate.

Odd Tactics
Superintendents interested in creating preschools and ensuring they remain developmentally appropriate have to persuade the crucial decision makers in their community. Sometimes, they have to just let the decision makers take it from there. To my embarrassment, I found that to be the case the first time I tried to convince a community to create a preschool within the public school system.

When the principal and I arrived at the town hall to present our case to town leaders, we found the building dark and locked. We later learned that the school committee we had persuaded to start a preschool did not want us at the meeting, so they gave us the wrong date and time. They thought that if the education professionals touted the idea of a preschool, the selectmen and the finance committee--the town officials with control of the purse strings--would veto the plan.

There were no quarrels about committing roughly $15,000 for a preschool--which is not to say there were no disputes about the school budget. The finance committee and others were more fixated that year on a controversy involving an electric tractor-style lawn mower the school committee had purchased (a transaction that occurred before my time as the superintendent, I am glad to say). Whether the school committee members chose tactics I would have preferred, they succeeded with the officials--to the long-term benefit of the children of their community.

Leonard Lubinsky is executive director of the Northeast Foundation for Children, 71 Montague City Road, Greenfield, MA 01301. E-mail: len@responsiveclassroom.org. He retired from the superintendency in Erving, Mass., last summer.