District unveils plans to expand preschool program in West Orange

Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez presents the five-year plan for preschool expansion at the Board of Education meeting on May 23.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange School District will be expanding its preschool program over the next five years and is hoping to provide early education for 90 percent of the 3- and 4-year-old students in West Orange at no cost to parents, according to Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez in a presentation to the West Orange Board of Education on May 23. The district will be applying for preschool expansion aid this August in order to expand the program.

The district’s Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center is currently a preschool for students with disabilities. The expansion will grow the program to include a wider population of general education students, though de Mendez said there are currently two inclusion classrooms with 16 general education students.

“Our goal is over the next five years to expand from serving 16 students to 866,” she said, using the state’s Department of Education formula of taking first-grade enrollment and multiplying it by two. The program is designed to serve 90 percent of that population.

“There may be 10 percent that choose to keep their children at home a little longer, that choose to have them attend private or a different venue,” de Mendez said. “That’s a projection, based on what we have in the community based on consistent first-grade enrollment.”

Based on a survey, many of those approximately 900 preschool students are attending an accredited preschool. Some are in day care, others are still at home and a small percentage of youngsters stay with a family member or friend. According to the survey, de Mendez said the district could infer that about 40 percent of preschool-aged children are not in preschool.

“Is this going to come out of my tax dollars? Is the school budget going to increase? No and no,” de Mendez said about the cost of expanding the preschool program. “We are eligible for state aid. This is state aid and not a grant. A grant would finish over time; we would have a year or two and then the district would have to pick that up. This funding source would be added to our state aid numbers yearly in perpetuity. As long as we receive state aid, we’ll continue to receive state aid for preschool.”

The state has a 150-page document detailing all of the requirements for a district to qualify for state aid; de Mendez discussed the key requirements at the meeting. They include the program being free, staffing requirements, a common curriculum, facility size requirements, ADA accessibility and transportation for students who live further than 2 miles away from the school they attend. The program also has to be a mixed-delivery model, which includes district classrooms, classes in partnership with private providers and head-start classrooms, which serve children younger than 3 years old.

If the district receives the state aid it applies for, it would bring in $14,252 per student per year for preschoolers in the district; $16,019 per student per year for private providers; and $8,851 for students in a head-start program.

“We would make our budget out of these per-pupil expenditures to include all of the things necessary to open preschool,” de Mendez said. “That’s how that would be funded.”

She pointed out that all of the plans the district has made in the last year are tentative and based on whether the district is awarded the state funding at all. But if it is, 13 new classrooms that serve 195 students will be able to open next school year, which is the first year of the five-year plan. Sixty students would attend school in WOSD, 90 would be split among two different private providers and 45 would be in a head-start program at the Montclair Child Development Center.

“Our considerations on how we would select the students that would enter into these classrooms for year 1 would be our Title I schools, which are the Hazel and Washington Elementary School communities,” de Mendez said. “And we would, for our district classes, begin with 4-year-old students first, to make sure we can seat as many students as possible.”

In the second year of the five-year plan, 20 classrooms with approximately 510 students would be added, though de Mendez said the district won’t know exactly how many until enrollment starts in November and there is the potential to add another year to the plan. Year 3 would add six classrooms for 90 students, and years 5 and 6 would add the last five classrooms for 71 students.

“At that point, I think we would need to look at leasing space, acquiring a building, or expanding partnerships,” de Mendez said. “Some parents have asked, ‘Will you be placing preschool into the buildings and increasing our class size when we’re already short on space?’ The answer to that is no. This will all be done in the community via leasing space or our partnerships. We do not have the capacity in our buildings to add classrooms, so it won’t impact current classrooms or class size.”

The board approved the district administration’s request to file an application for state preschool aid with a vote of 4-0; BOE member Eric Stevenson was absent. The district will hear if it receives the state aid by the beginning of September.