Editor's note: Supt. of Schools Fran Rabinowitz reports that there will be another round of funding for an additional 500 spots, and she is hopeful Hamden will be considered for some of that money.
Gov. Dannel Malloy's announcement earlier this year that the state would fund hundreds of additional preschool seats next year raised the hopes of Hamden school officials that the district would finally be able to provide the service to more of the town's low income students.
But school officials recently learned that wouldn't happen -- that Hamden would only get School Readiness funding for its existing 13 seats, despite having a need that far outpaces that number. Instead, that funding would go to "priority districts" that already receive the lions share of such funding.
Where Hamden Fits
Priority school districts are those districts the state Dept. of Education has deemed have the greatest academic need. They include Ansonia, Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Norwich, Putnam, Stamford, Waterbury and Windham.
While Hamden is not included in that list, parts of the town have an equally urgent need, especially those closest to New Haven, school officials say, which is why providing preschool seats is so important.
The town's 13 subsidized seats are split between Church Street and Helen Street schools, according to LuAnn Gallicchio, the district's Director of Adult and Early Childhood Education.
An Emphisis From the Top
Gov. Dannel Malloy has made preschool opportunities a priority in his school reform plan, establishing earlier this year an Early Childhood Office and pledging state funding for 1,000 preschool seats for low income students, and 500 for the upcoming school year.
To prepare for that, state education officials reached out to local school officials to get a tally of how many seats were needed, Gallicchio said, and Hamden officials determined that the district could accommodate 50 slots.
"As a border community to priority districts, many of the families in Hamden have significant financial challenges that prevent them from providing a quality preschool education for their children," Supt. of Schools Fran Rabinowitz said in a letter to Commissioner Stefan Pryor. "This is especially true for the families in the southern end of our town, where the free and reduced lunch rate approaches 80 percent. Only about half of these children attend pre-school, compared to 95 percent of children living in the northern section of Hamden."
Preschool opportunities has been one of Rabinowitz's priorities since she came to the district five years ago.
"If there is one thing that is incredibly close to my heart, it is preschool," she told the Legislative Council last week during the Board of Education's budget presentation. "If a student comes to school from a quality preschool, they are better prepared for us."
An expanded preschool program is part of the Ridge Hill School renovation project that includes space that could accommodate those additional 50 slots, she wrote to Pryor.
She also pointed out the inequities in state funding between municipalities.
"Last year, Hamden received $107,000 while West Haven received $1,633,794 – over 15 times Hamden’s allocation," she said. "This seems particularly inequitable, when coupled with the fact that Hamden has seen an 18 percent increase in students eligible for free and reduced lunch and a 60 percent increase in students needing English Language Learner services."
A Question of Money
While the town has many private preschool facilities in town, in addition to the seats at Helen Street and Church Street schools, as well as Alice Peck School, many families can't afford the cost, which can run hundreds of dollars a week.
The disparity is especially stark when comparing students in the town's schools, where 95 percent of West Woods School students attended preschool, compared to only 46 percent of Helen Street School students, Rabinowitz said.
"Those that can pay, will pay for it," she said. "It's the rest we have to get into preschool."
It was her hope that the Governor's program would provide more subsidized seats for those students, Rabinowitz said.
"We are incredibly disappointed" that the district did not get the 50 requested seat allotment, she said. "We have found out that they are going to the priority schools."
Rabinowitz said she has sent a letter to Malloy asking him to rethink that strategy, noting that New Haven gets 5,000 subsidized seats compared to Hamden's 13 seats.