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Vermont Opens Classrooms to 3- and 4-Year-Olds

  • Dusty Carter, left, and Ivann Ordway play in the dress-up corner in the preschool room at Bradford Elementary School on Sept. 2, 2016 in Bradford, Vt.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After being given instruction on where they can play, preschool students Rylee Brown, left, Laydin Swift, and Adalyn Chase all do their own thing at Bradford Elementary School on Sept. 2, 2016 in Bradford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Preschool teacher Kasey Brabazon, left, with her preschool class at Bradford Elementary School on Sept. 2, 2016 in Bradford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Preschool students line up to go outside on Sept. 2, 2016 at the Bradford Elementary School in Bradford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Preschool student Kyra Ballou draws with her classmates at Bradford Elementary School on Sept. 2, 2016. Her teacher Kasey Brabazon, right, writes students names on their work, para-professional Jill Larson is left. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, September 05, 2016

Ivann Ordway, 4, joined several of his classmates as they explored their new preschool classroom at Bradford Elementary School during an open house before school started.

He constructed a ramp for a toy truck out of blocks, he tried on a police uniform and examined a clear plastic table that contained water.

The program’s first day last Wednesday marked Ivann’s first ever day of school. At the open house, two days before school was to begin, his mother, Angel Malcher, 27, was nervous.

“Especially the first day, I might just cry,” she said.

Despite anxiety about the change for her oldest child, Malcher said she is looking forward to the new skills Ivann will learn.

“It teaches him to interact with other kids, other than cousins,” Malcher said. Ivann has spent most of the past four years at home with her, she said.

As a result of the state’s new universal preschool law, Act 166 — which went into effect in July — Ivann and the state’s other 3- and 4-year-olds, and 5-year-olds not yet in kindergarten, have access to 10 hours of publicly funded preschool each week during the school year.

By offering public funds for 10 weekly hours of preschool, state legislators — including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge — aim to better prepare incoming kindergarteners for future learning by teaching social skills and providing the opportunity to practice sitting and attending to a task.

The public tuition money — $3,092 per pupil this year — which families access through their school district of residence, can be used for programs like Bradford’s in a public school or for qualified private programs in homes or child care centers.

Bradford’s new preschool classroom, which used to house the school library, is a response to the new law. The library was moved into a technology lab next door and the technology teacher will now rotate between classrooms, said Matthew Brankman, the school’s principal, who stopped by the preschool room during the open house.

The goal of the school’s program, like the state law, is to increase access to quality preschool, he said. Simply making tuition payments as the law requires “didn’t seem like enough,” said Brankman, who is in his sixth year as the school’s principal.

Bradford’s new public preschool for 4-year-olds is open from 8 to 11:30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the school year. Pre-existing private programs in Bradford, including Valley Cooperative Preschool on Route 5, accept 3-year-old and 4-year-old students.

The Orange County Parent Child Center — which offers a play group, home visits and other support for Bradford parents — is providing extended care in the same classroom from 11:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. The center might also provide care on Tuesdays and Thursdays, depending on interest.

“Some families need it,” Brankman said of the after preschool care. “This is a great place to provide it.”

The room is spacious, with high ceilings and windows facing Fairground Road. For the open house, it was neatly arranged with a reading corner, a play area with blocks, another with stuffed animals and dress-up clothes, cubbies, the water table and tables where children sat drawing.

The crayons, colored pencils and markers were arranged by color, which preschool teacher Kasey Brabazon acknowledged probably wouldn’t stay that way beyond the first day of school.

Brabazon, who previously taught kindergarten at Bradford, is the lead teacher for the 15-student class and has one assistant.

There are still five spots available, which administrators attribute to the newness of the program, not to a lack of need.

“I’m confident it will be full within the month of September,” said Mary Ellen Otis, executive director of the Orange County Parent Child Center.

Universal preschool “really levels the playing field” in terms of improving children’s readiness for kindergarten, Otis said. Extending the day makes the program more accessible for working families, she said. It also reduces the number of transitions children need to make each day.

Liz Spriggs, the lead teacher and Bradford site coordinator for the Orange County Parent Child Center, said she and Brabazon plan to collaborate so the child care portion supports the preschool curriculum and doesn’t duplicate it. The two plan to meet weekly, Spriggs said, in-between handing out informational packets to families at the open house.

The care provided by the Orange County Parent Child Center costs $22 for the half day on the days when preschool is offered in the morning and would cost $44 for the full day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, should enough interest develop, according to the handbook parents received at the open house. Financial assistance, for those who qualify based on their income, is available through The Family Place in Norwich.

“This program is one example of the creative ways that communities and partners can get together,” said Otis.

It was such collaborations that Buxton hoped to inspire when she sponsored Act 166, she said in a phone interview last week.

She proposed publicly funding 10 hours a week of preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state whose families opt in, because some communities were offering 40 hours a week of publicly funded preschool, while others didn’t offer any.

“It was drafted and put forth as a way to make a more streamlined and equitable offering of early learning opportunities across the state,” Buxton said.

The law was enacted in 2014 and was originally slated to go into effect in 2015, but implementation was delayed until this year to give communities another year to adjust.

To evaluate the success of the program, Buxton said she will be looking at kindergarten readiness scores, third-grade reading levels, the demand for special education services and, eventually, college graduation rates.

As the law rolls out, Buxton said she will also be looking to see that there are enough spots in public and private preschools to accommodate any family that would like to receive publicly funded preschool for their child.

The law requires school districts to cover the cost of 10 hours of preschool at any qualifying program, not only those programs located within the town of residence. To qualify, private programs must comply with state standards, including having a licensed preschool teacher on staff.

In some Vermont districts, including in Springfield, publicly funded preschool is not offered in a public setting at all and is available only through qualified private partners, said Gladys Collins, early education coordinator for the Springfield School District.

Long-term goals for educators include trying to count the number of 3- and 4-year-olds in the population, said Marla Ianello, the early childhood program coordinator for Orange East Supervisory Union, which includes Bradford. Because enrollment is not mandatory, it is difficult to get a sense of how many children are out there and whether and why some families might opt not to enroll their children in preschool.

One thing that may continue to make preschoolers difficult to track is that not all programs have qualified to receive public dollars. For example, the program at the Waits River Valley School was still waiting to hear back from the state in late August, said Ianello.

Other program managers are not motivated to go through the state’s approval process because demand for preschool programs is so great.

“(They’re) not having trouble filling the slots,” said Susan Lancey, director of Randolph Elementary School’s essential early education program. “They have waiting lists.”

One hurdle for all preschool programs is finding and keeping licensed teachers. This is because there are few licensing programs in the state and jobs teaching older students are better compensated, Buxton said.

“Some people running programs would have to stop and go back to school,” Lancey said.

Randolph began putting public money toward preschool two years ago. The program at Randolph Elementary School is at capacity and includes some children with disabilities, Lancey said.

The elementary school might expand its public program — which also serves students from Braintree and Brookfield — to accommodate demand, Lancey said. But, for now, there is not space to do so, she said.

The law has had only minor administrative impacts in communities already providing publicly funded preschool options, such as the Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River.

Blue Mountain’s preschool program has been in place long enough that Carrie Bogie, the nearly 30-year-old preschool teacher, is an alumna.

“We’re lucky (to) have everything all in place,” she said.

Most students who will attend Blue Mountain’s kindergarten will have attended preschool there, Bogie said. Being in the same building allows Bogie to give kindergarten teachers a sense of what to expect from individual students. At the end of the year, she sits down with the kindergarten teachers to describe the ways in which each of the children learn.

Blue Mountain’s preschool also gives students a chance to become comfortable with the school building and staff. For example, Bogie’s classes visit the library and meet the cafeteria workers, she said.

The preschool students participate in school-wide events. Pep rallies with 3-year-olds are particularly fun, she said.

“Some cover their ears and others dance and shout,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.