MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE — The Montrose Early Childhood Center officially opened its doors with a ribbon cutting Dec. 4, roughly two years after the building was approved as a joint general-education and special-education school for the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s preschoolers.
District officials joined school staff, parents and students to commemorate the school’s ceremonial launch, though classes had actually began in the building Nov. 9. Prior to that, classes were held in various district locations as a result of delays in the renovations to the old building that at different times in its long history has housed an elementary school, a YMCA day care and an alternative high school.
But even though it has taken a while, school director Renee Joyce said Montrose has been well worth the wait. Despite its initial hurdles, Joyce said everything is going smoothly at the school. It is exciting to finally be open for business, she said.
“It is just a fantastic feeling of relief and joy to be able to come into this beautiful building every single day with this phenomenal staff and absolutely adorable children,” Joyce told the News-Record in a Dec. 3 phone interview. “It is a fulfillment of a dream for me, just to see it from paper and pencil to full fruition of this extraordinary building. It’s fabulous.”
According to Joyce, Montrose currently has 62 students enrolled and a 115-student capacity. Of the students enrolled, she said there is an approximately 50-50 split between general-education and special-education students.
In the future, she said the school hopes to have a 60-40 split, with the general-education students coming from in-district and the special-education students coming from both in and outside of South Orange-Maplewood. Right now all students are from the district, but she said Montrose can start marketing itself to special-education students from outside towns now.
Bringing in out-of-district students will lead to increased revenue for the South Orange-Maplewood school system, but that does not mean Montrose does not have cost benefits now.
District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner told the News-Record the school is saving the district approximately $1,125,000 this year because its special-education program has taken in 15 students who would have otherwise gone to outside schools to meet their needs. Additionally, Turner said the district is anticipating roughly $116,000 in revenue from tuition-paying students this year.
The average tuition cost for a general education student is $800 a month, but Joyce pointed out that Montrose offers a sliding payment scale to accommodate all parents. Parents of special education students do not pay tuition.
As for expenses, Turner said the district currently does not have an exact breakdown of how much it will cost the school to operate Montrose in its first year. But she said the total costs for construction — which included a new roof, parking lot, and electrical and plumbing projects — will amount to roughly $3.2 million.
Financials aside though, Joyce said she is really excited about implementing a full-inclusion program, in which general- and special-education students are mixed. The school director explained that she believes Montrose will stand out for offering such a program when most other schools in the area do not, which could drive more special-education students to enroll. But above all, she said integrating the classes will have a significant positive impact on both the general- and special-education populations in addition to hopefully narrowing the achievement gap.
“It is enriching for the special-education students to be with their general education peers so that they have wonderful role models for the issues that they may be dealing with,” Joyce said, adding that even the students in Montrose’s one self-contained special-education class have opportunities to play with general-education students when they would not normally at other schools. “But it also is wonderful for the general-ed. population because the general-ed. population will develop a sense of compassion for the differences in learning as they move forward.
“The achievement gap I think will be closed because of the fact that it is a high-quality program with certificated staff with a state-approved curriculum,” she continued. “Those children who are attending here are really attending a program that is infused with a lot of richness and exposure to things that all children really need to be competitive at the kindergarten level and then certainly going on in school.”
Joyce was not the only one at the ribbon cutting happy to see the full-inclusion program. Board of Education First Vice President Madhu Pai told the News-Record she wishes more programs would be as inclusive as Montrose’s, explaining that the preschoolers who go there can learn a lot just from being around different types of children.
Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. agreed that integrating the students is best for everyone, pointing out that young children do not see differences like older students do, so reinforcing that notion of equality is a good way of building self-confidence and preventing an achievement gap from forming down the road. Plus, Ramos said it is simply the right thing to do.
“This school is really a statement about what our community is all about,” Ramos told the News-Record following the ribbon cutting. “Our community is about diversity, it’s about plurality and it’s about having students learn to work with one another. And after all, isn’t that what society is about? So to have our children begin to learn that at the youngest age just makes good sense.”
Ramos also lauded Joyce and the other educators who spearheaded the push to turn the formerly empty Montrose building into what it has become, saying that they demonstrated just how passionate they truly are about helping preschool students.
Patricia Barker, former director of special services for the district, was one such educator who proved integral in bringing about the Montrose preschool. Barker recalled that she and her child study team wanted to create a place for the all of the district’s preschool classes — they had previously been spread out among the elementary schools — that at the same time would offer unprecedented inclusiveness. So they studied other programs and used what they learned to put together a proposal, which was approved by the Board of Education in December 2013.
Seeing the fruits of her labor feels “wonderful,” according to Barker, who said she also feels the inclusion aspect will lead to good things for all students. On top of that, she said the school has teachers who are both general- and special-education certified in addition to an occupational therapist, a physical therapist and a speech therapist who work with all the children — which could help in the long run.
“We’re able to identify students who may have struggles earlier,” Barker told the News-Record before the ribbon cutting. “They may have come in here as a general-ed. student, but we may spot some things and be able to provide some help early on.”
The parents of the Montrose preschool are certainly appreciative of Barker’s efforts. Mike Paquett said the school has been great for his special-education son, Camden, providing a nice transition from Essex County’s early intervention program. Paquett said Camden seems to be really learning from the general-education students in his class, and Camden’s teacher does an excellent job of updating Paquett on what is going on with emails every day.
“Our teacher is really great,” Paquett told the News-Record. “If you email her she gets back to you. She helps you out if you’re having a hard time at home with your child. We just had conferences, and I got so much more information about my child than I thought I would ever get. And I saw so much growth and knew where they were going throughout the year.”
Stacy Goldstein said she also appreciated the constant communication with her daughter’s teacher. In fact, her teacher will sometimes email her stories about funny things her daughter said or did, which Goldstein said really makes her day.
Dania Murphy is also impressed by the Montrose teachers, especially the way they handle the integrated classes. Murphy explained that one would not be able to tell which students were part of the general- or special-education populations upon looking into a classroom. At the same time though, she said each child’s individual needs are met.
“The teachers know how to take the same activity and then create it so that at different levels all the kids are getting something out of the activity,” Murphy told the News-Record. “I think it’s working.”
Looking ahead, Joyce said she hopes Montrose will continue to be successful. In fact, she said she has a vision of the school doing a lot of good for years to come.
“I would like to see the school become a wonderful community place where families can experience the public school with their children at a very, very young age,” Joyce said. “I think it will offer to children the opportunity for some specialized enrichment and have an impact on them in a long-term way. And I think it will be a wonderful opportunity to shape our citizenry to really understand the needs of special-needs children and how all children with special needs can be integrated successfully and have a positive impact on their peers.”