POWNAL -- The school districts of Pownal and Woodford are beginning to explore public pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds to begin as early as this fall.
The districts are following in the steps of the other Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union elementary districts of Shaftsbury, North Bennington and Bennington, all of which started public-private partnerships with area preschool providers in recent years.
"Whenever we look at education and we take a look at pre-K, it’s a very beneficial education for a student before they enter the regular elementary school," Pownal Principal Todd Phillips said at Wednesday’s school board meeting. "Whatever educational experiences they can get prior to entering kindergarten, we see that those students seem to do so much better."
The Pownal board unanimously agreed to begin the process of studying pre-K Wednesday, just a couple weeks after Woodford took the same action.
Under Act 62, school districts may count preschool students toward their average daily membership (ADM) if the district pays a minimum of 10 hours a week for 35 weeks a year for children to attend private providers who meet educational standards.
"What the law says is public schools can provide public pre-K, and public pre-K does not have to be within the walls of your school," SVSU Early Childhood Director Karen Burnell told the Pownal board.
Prior to entering such agreements Pownal and Woodford school districts must do a comprehensive study to get a clear picture of what the needs of each community are and what preschool resources already exist.
"We are required by law to do a very comprehensive community needs assessment, which means that we have to include your community in the decision about pre-K (to determine) what it means, what it might look like, we have to survey all your providers, we have to try to locate all your students," Burnell said.
Part of the work was done last year through Bennington’s community needs assessment, during which Burnell worked with many of the same providers Pownal and Woodford would likely use.
In addition to meeting with providers, both districts will be distributing questionnaires to residents and holding open forums to gather community input in coming months as well.
Existing pre-K programs have proven cost-neutral in other districts as the added expense to operate the programs is offset by additional state aid from due to the additional enrollment. However, pre-K enrollment counts are based on a two-year average, so it is not until the third year in operation that districts receive the full revenue.
The other SVSU districts with pre-K received two-year startup grants from Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative to cover those expenses, although as VCPC has begun phasing out of offering those grants it is unknown whether those funds will be available for Woodford or Pownal, Burnell said. Another option to cover the expense may be state aid as Gov. Peter Shumlin has made it a priority of his to encourage all school districts to offer public pre-K and has suggested the state reserve money for those expenses.
The hope is public pre-K will encourage more families to have their child attend preschool for at least 10 hours a week and to offer financial assistance to families who may already have a child in preschool.
"The family sees a reduction in their weekly tuition bill for the 10 hours that the school district is paying," Burnell said.
"It’s been a win-win in North Bennington and Shaftsbury, and it’s projected to be a win-win in Bennington. I wouldn’t anticipate it would be anything other than that here," added Richard Pembroke, SVSU chief financial officer.
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