BENNINGTON -- School officials announced Wednesday that public pre-kindergarten will begin in Bennington this fall, although they are still seeking additional private partners to meet the demand.
It had been suspected the new public/private pre-K -- in the works for the past year -- would begin as classes resume in a month, but now that the district has secured about $165,000 in grant funding the decision was made official.
The expectation is that through the program all 4-year-olds in town may attend partnering preschools and receive 10 publicly funded hours of preschool per week for 35 weeks.
Karen Burnell, early education director for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, said seven preschool providers have partnered with Bennington School District, and she plans to meet with a half-dozen more to discuss partnerships next week. All of the current partners are located in Bennington, although partnering providers are not required to be located in town.
On Wednesday, Burnell told the BSD school board there are about 75 4-year-olds prepared to begin public pre-K in the fall. When the program was designed, the expectation was for 98 children to enroll this fall, and Burnell said she still believes that number can be met.
Whether there will be capacity for 98 children at partnering preschools may be another question.
"I am starting to worry a little bit about full capacity," Burnell told the school board. "I've been getting a lot of calls from parents ... we're going to start rubbing against that edge about having placements for all," Burnell said.
Earlier in the year when a community needs assessment was done, 22 providers said they were interested in partnering with BSD and another 17 said they may be interested.
"Some people I haven't had a chance to meet with, and a few people were interested, and as they learned more they've determined for this next year it's just not the right time for them," Burnell said in an interview Thursday.
A plan is not yet in place for what would happen if more children wish to attend the public pre-K than there is capacity for. If that were to happen, Burnell said she and the community needs assessment team would meet and come up with a proposal this month.
The school board has supported public pre-K for all 4-year-olds over the past year. The board budgeted $100,000 in this fiscal year's budget to start the program, which voters approved in March. The district has received confirmation in recent weeks that it has also received two significant grants to help cover the anticipated $265,000 cost to start the program.
Those funds include $135,000 from the Vermont Community Foundation and $29,000 in a state Early Education Initiative grant.
School officials believe the added expense to operate pre-K will be offset by additional state aid BSD will receive due to an increased enrollment. School districts are allowed to count each pre-K student as 0.4 equalized pupils in their average daily membership, which officials believe will make the program cost neutral.
Pre-K enrollment counts are based on a two-year average, so it is not until the third year in operation the district will receive the full reimbursement. In the second year districts generally receive additional grants to keep the cost flat. By the program's third year it should be self-sustaining.
Bennington is the third school district in SVSU to form a public/private pre-K, following Shaftsbury and North Bennington. Both of those districts have reported great success in the programs in recent years.
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