Corinth Preschool Seeks New Home

Corinth Program Needs to Move; Vermont Boosts Pre-K

  • Parent, volunteer and substitute teacher Becky Fenner cleans up with student Maya Heidenreich before recess at Sugar Maple Preschool in Corinth.

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2016

On a wet, raw morning last week, students at the Sugar Maple Preschool are clustered on the floor listening to their teacher Judy Jewell recite the old nursery rhyme Pease Porridge Hot.

“Who remembers the letter ‘O?’ ” Jewell said. “What words have the letter O in them?

Hands fly up. Orange! Octopus!

The children then sing along with Jewell, who tells them she chose this particular nursery rhyme because of its abundance of Os.

After they finish, the children sit down at tables in a classroom that Sugar Maple rents from Waits River Valley School in East Corinth. The tables are set up for them to finish a cut-and-paste project in which they’ll make paper octopi. They take pre-cut strips of colored paper, which will serve as octopus tentacles, and paste them onto white paper.

Currently there are 22 enrolled students and three staff. The students come primarily from Corinth, Topsham and Vershire, with some from Bradford and even Haverhill. The classroom is divided into different stations where the children can play at house, or at a mock-sand box filled with rice grains instead of sand.

But now the preschool has to find another space in a hurry.

On March 17 the Waits River Valley School Board voted not to renew the preschool’s lease because increased enrollment at Waits River necessitates more classroom space for fall 2016.

The Waits River Valley School has added 37 students in the past 2½ years, said Principal Carlotta Perantoni. “We have had a lot of families move into the area.”

Given declining student enrollment statewide, the expansion at Waits River Valley School is “not what the state would consider the norm,” Perantoni said.

The school had a low enrollment of 203 from 2012 to 2013. The school enrollment is now 241; the school has not had that number of students since 2005, Perantoni said.

“We’re strong supporters of Sugar Maple Preschool: we love them and embrace them. But we have to have another classroom,” Perantoni added. (The school does not offer a pre-Kindergarten program, and has no plans to do so at this time.)

Founded in 1984, the Sugar Maple Preschool has hopscotched from location to location over its 32 years. Prior to moving into the Waits River school the preschool was in the basement of the East Corinth Congregational Church. It had to relocate in spring 2014, however, because of a mold problem, said Emily Harrington, president of the Sugar Maple board.

At that point, the Waits River Valley School stepped in to offer the preschool a two-year contract to lease a classroom.

Harrington, who has a daughter in the preschool and two children in the Waits River school, said she understands Waits River’s need for an extra classroom.

“We knew coming in here that it would be tight,” she said.

But her main concern is that the preschool find a home for next year; to receive its annual state accreditation in time to open in the fall the preschool must be in a new location by Aug. 1.

She and other board members have begun looking at locations in the area that they could rent or buy. The preference is to find a location that can serve as a permanent home, she said.

The Waits River Valley School has also offered the preschool the option of staying on-site in a mobile unit classroom, said Perantoni.

That is contingent on getting the necessary permitting, said Waits River Valley School Board Chairwoman Valerie Johnson.

To buy a mobile classroom would, according to one estimate, cost the preschool $94,000, said Melanie Del Frari, who is also on the board and has a son in the preschool; to lease one for two years would, in one estimate, cost $4,200 monthly.

The preschool’s annual payroll this year was  a little more than $73,000, said Del Frari. But the school has been operating in the red and depends heavily on donations and grants to keep going, she said. (The preschool’s Facebook page has a link to a GoFundMe site to request donations.)

Tuition is $33 for a full day, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $28 for a half-day, which ends at 11:30 a.m. Children must be aged 3 to 5, and must be toilet-trained.

In 2014, Vermont passed Act 166, which takes effect on July 1 of this year and which provides for universal access to publicly-funded prekindergarten education.

Act 166 requires every school district to pay for 10 hours of education per week, over 35 weeks of the school year, for every 3-, 4- or 5-year-old child in the district, said Marla Ianello, the early childhood programs coordinator at Orange East Supervisory Union in Bradford. (To qualify, a 5-year-old must not already be in kindergarten.)

For the 2016-2017 school year the allowable tuition rate per child will be $3,092, according to the Vermont Agency of Education's website.

A parent or guardian can enroll a child in any preschool, in any district, but in order to benefit from the 10 funded hours, it must be a public or private preschool that has “prequalified,” or met the criteria established by the Agency of Education.

In order for a private school to prequalify, it must attain at least four, out of five, stars through Vermont's Step Ahead Recognition Program, which is administered through the Child Development Division in the Department of Children and Families.

A private preschool must also have on staff a licensed childhood or early childhood special education teacher, and measure a child's social and academic development using a program called Teaching Strategies Gold, said Ianello.

Teaching Strategies Gold is an assessment tool that allows schools to monitor a child's growth and development in specific areas, Ianello said. It also permits the state to compare programs across the state by the same yardstick. Sugar Maple is already compliant, said Del Frari.

Sugar Maple has also earned its fourth star from Vermont’s Step Ahead Recognition System.

The next step, once a new location has been found, is to hire a licensed early childhood education teacher. (Jewell has a bachelor's degree in elementary education, but not the required degree in early childhood education, and she doesn't wish to pursue one, Del Frari wrote in an email.)

This is anticipated to drive up the budget, said Del Frari. Next year’s budget is estimated, with hiring an early childhood educator and bringing salaries into line with a national standard, to be a little more than $117,000.

But the benefits of prekindergarten education have been demonstrated, said Harrington. It helps ease the transition into kindergarten, and for children who may have some kind of learning disability, that disability is caught earlier.

Harrington’s youngest daughter, who is in the preschool, had a slight speech impediment which was addressed with the help of a special educator who works on site and is contracted through Orange East Supervisory Union.

For children who need an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Harrington said, the special educator helps them with speech, physical and occupational therapy, or aid for children who are hearing-impaired.

Despite the tight timeframe — a little more than three months — Harrington and Del Frari are hopeful that the school will find a new home.

Johnson, the Waits River School Board chairwoman, echoed that sentiment: “I am optimistic that we'll find a solution,” she said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.