Spotlight

A Community Consortium to Bolster Early Education

by SUSAN M. D’ALESSANDRO

In these difficult economic times, school districts can be fiscally efficient and instructionally effective at the same time by jointly finding new ways to share services.

In suburban Ocean County, N.J., a few small school districts have created a local consortium made up of administrators, private preschools, parents and local business representatives to provide quality preschool opportunities.

Susan D'AlessandroSusan D'Alessandro


The goal of the Southern Ocean County Initiatives in Education Consortium is to share ideas among parents, school administrators and community leaders to enhance our education programs. It was evident early on that time spent with the consortium members would enable us to work toward facilitating the growth of the whole child. Our consortium, launched in 2005, has taken time to develop a step-by-step transformation for early childhood programs.

•  Establish the purpose. The idea of creating a consortium developed organically when the approximately 2,500-student school district in Stafford Township began discussions to reconfigure the grade-level makeup of our four elementary schools to possibly house all kindergarten students in one building. The fact we were about to build a primary learning center was appealing to educators, but we knew we had to include parents in the process to better explain why we were consolidating the program.

To that end, the superintendent appointed me as principal of the new building one year prior to the school’s opening, well before a shovel hit the ground. District staff brainstormed the issues we thought would emerge and perhaps fester as we started work on a state-of-the-art facility for our youngest learners.

We scheduled a series of well-attended meetings with mothers’ groups in the community, giving us the opportunity to market our ideas and to hear from our future customers how to make the educational environment even better. It quickly became evident the families wanted to be involved in our school system before their children even started kindergarten. 

•  Build on successes. The focus group meetings made us realize our future kindergarten parents not only were eager but willing to be a significant part of the educational process. Coincidently, I was asked by a local business representative to provide guidance for a library grant that was being created by a local foundation. I shared the success we were experiencing in engaging our future parents and together we began thinking about creating an avenue for our school district to unite on behalf of our preschoolers.

The Stafford Township School District took the lead. We extended invitations to six area school districts, as well as the mothers’ groups and private preschools in the community, to attend our quarterly meetings. While all districts follow the New Jersey Curriculum Core Content Standards, from the first meeting on we realized the actual delivery of instruction differs widely. Though our classroom practices might vary, we coalesced about the core goal of generating high-quality programs for all preschoolers and their families.

In years one and two, the consortium provided a “six-pack” series of free workshops for local preschool families focusing on the healthy 3- to 4-year old, literacy activities for home use, Internet safety and how to create simple readers at home focusing on foundational literacy skills. 

•  Reflect and revise. As word spread, more private preschools in the vicinity showed up at consortium meetings, where they shared the overwhelming need for professional development. The workshops transformed from family-focused to staff-centered. The six-event series blossomed into four workshops one day a month during the winter season, and they continued to be free. Local businesses sponsored the presenters.

The workshops offered topical ideas to be used at the next day’s class as we are committed to addressing practical needs of the participating preschool educators.
Additionally, the consortium has offered free theater experiences to local summer camps and programs over the past four summers. Nearly 8,000 students have attended. 

•  Ask and you shall receive. We discovered a world of help exists just beyond one’s reach; you just need to ask for it.

Early on, many of our workshop presenters offered their services for free. Local pediatricians, teachers and administrators were more than willing to present their ideas to our group. The consortium has become a catalyst for area experts to come together to help one another.

By opening the door and connecting with others around a common goal, we’ve strengthened not only our own program, but we’ve shown respect for the wider profession. Some may say we were fortunate to have a local business leader step up to provide some financial assistance for the incidentals associated with the consortium as needed. However, during these rough economic times, we must realize that collaboration, thinking outside of the box and truly believing that anything is possible will lead to positive ends.

Unfortunately, getting all the support educators need from state and local governments no longer is the norm. School districts that rally together around a common goal or purpose that inspires will find the money out there. Don’t accept a closed door as an end to the pursuit but as an opportunity to begin looking in an alternate direction.

Susan D’Alessandro is principal of the Ronald L. Meinders Primary Learning Center in the Stafford Township School District in Manahawkin, N.J. E-mail: sdalessandro@staffordschools.org