Since she became superintendent of schools six years ago, Fran Rabinowitz has counted among her priorities closing the achievement gap among Hamden students, and one key ingredient, she believes, is the availability of preschool.
And now, the opportunity has arose to expand that opportunity here, she says, as the city of New Haven relocates its Hyde Leadership Academy out of Hamden in June, freeing up the former Rev. Daniel J. Barry Junior High School building on Circular Avenue it has leased for years.
With that building available, the town could take up that lease and use the space for its alternative high school, which is currently housed at the former Alice Peck School, where it shares space with the district's preschool program.
Moving the alternative high school to the Barry building can not only expand that program, potentially opening it up to students from other districts which would bring tuition revenue to the district, but also expand the preschool program at Alice Peck, making room for an additional 50 children, Rabinowitz said.
"Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the nation," she said. "We have done some things but it still exists."
And the fact is, for some children, when they walk through the doors to their first day of kindergarten, "they're already behind the eight ball," Rabinowitz said.
Children who attend a high quality preschool before entering kindergarten show increased achievement, higher test scores, better social skills, fewer grade retentions, higher graduation rates and fewer behavior and discipline problems, she said, which is why it's imperative that more opportunity exist for students to attend a preschool program.
"It would be great to have a high quality, affordable, stimulating pre-kindergarten program in Hamden," she said.
While a lack of preschool has always been a problem among the poorest families, with the recession, more and more children from middle class families are coming to kindergarten lacking any preschool experiences because their families just couldn't afford it, Rabinowitz said.
"Not all parents are able to afford preschool," she said. "If we could have a preschool that would work on closing that gap it would put Hamden on the cutting edge, and you would have more young families saying they want to move to Hamden to be able to participate in a high quality preschool program that is affordable."
The program would be open to all Hamden children and would be staffed with certified teachers, Rabinowitz said. The town already is operating preschool programs in Church Street and Helen Street schools, as well as the Alice Peck program, through Title I and Alliance Grant funds, and that money would be able to be used to expand the program, she said.
The district also would legally be able to charge families on a sliding scale based on income, she said.
"This is something that is very exciting to me and to my staff," she said.
It also would allow the district to expand the alternative high school, which serves students who are unable to excel in the traditional high school setting. By moving it to the former Rev. Daniel J. Barry facility, which was once operated by Blessed Sacrament Church, the alternative high school program would be able to accommodate students from other districts, Rabinowitz said.
The other districts would pay Hamden tuition to send their students here, she said, which for some districts is cost effective if they have small numbers of students that need such services.
"For other districts, it's not cost effective to have their own program," she said. "We would have many students who would want to come here."