SOMSD to expand preschool program with $1.4M grant

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood School District has been awarded a $1.4 million grant that will allow the Board of Education to expand its preschool program.

The Preschool Education Expansion Grant from the New Jersey Department of Education will be used to expand the program this year from five to six hours of instruction for 30 additional students chosen through a lottery; make it free for all enrolled students; and add a master teacher to aid classroom teachers and a social worker to liaise between families and the preschool classrooms. The program also aims to serve 400 students by the 2022-2023 school year.

“I would say that this is an incredible opportunity for the district, for the community to begin focusing its time, energies and, I would say, resources to be able to begin addressing the needs of young children,” Laura Morana, SOMSD interim director of special services, told the News-Record. “The district will be positioned to support their development.

“We will see this readiness that perhaps we have not seen in every child,” Morana added.

The $1,422,000 award is nearly 24 times the previous annual preschool funding of $59,400 and will also fund additional staff to support the growing number of preschool students; the salaries of teachers, a nurse and a partial principal; and miscellaneous expenses, such as field trips and supplies.

Morana came to know about the state funding in early July through the Department of Education’s weekly communication to school districts and submitted the application by the Aug. 1 deadline. The grant was only available to select districts that had received partial funding in the past and continued to exhibit need with a certain number of children in the program and a certain percentage of district students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Morana said. The superintendent’s office was notified of the application’s approval Aug. 27.

The award is available for yearly renewal based on number of students served, and progress and need evaluated by the state Department of Education.

Morana said she is excited for the educational and behavioral development of children that she believes will be aided by the additional funding.

“When I think about the outcome and where I would see our children to be in two years from now, it would be that kindergarten readiness that everyone talks about; not only in terms of reading and writing and mathematics, but also looking at those essential, what we call, ‘executive functioning’ or self-discipline that our children will be developing, so when they enter kindergarten, they will be ready and be a well-rounded child who is ready to perform academically, but also socially within the classroom,” she said.

“The ultimate goal is for the children to not only be ready for kindergarten but also maybe exceed the expectations as they enter kindergarten,” Morana continued. “Obviously, we will set up trajectory for them to be successful not only through third grade, but obviously through elementary, middle and, obviously, high school, as well.”

Morana said the plans are currently being finalized and will be implemented in the upcoming months.

South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker described the grant as “transformative.”

“This is the first major step to ensuring that all students in our district have access to high-quality pre-K in our community,” Baker told the News-Record. “I think over the next five and 10 years that this fundamental shift and access to quality pre-K will be a major driver in narrowing — and hopefully eliminating — the opportunity gap that has led to what we call the achievement gap.”