Pre-kindergartens stay afloat

Restoration of state funding lets most offer full services

Monday, September 13, 2010

As the last school year came to a close, school districts throughout the area were prepared to make significant cuts to their pre-kindergarten programs this fall to cope with a projected loss in state funding.

Most of the districts, however, have fully restored their pre-kindergarten services for 2010-11 thanks to a promise from the state to reinstate the same amount of funds for the program as during the last fiscal year.

School superintendents such as Riverton’s Tom Mulligan say they’re thrilled because pre-kindergarten is a huge benefit for a district’s most vulnerable students.

“It’s just tremendous, the research on the impact of pre-K programs on students’ readiness (for elementary school),” he said, noting more than 40 percent of his district’s students this year are considered low income. “Especially for those kids in poverty and the kids with higher risk factors, the pre-K program is just invaluable.”

But concerns about the state’s ongoing financial problems and failure to pay its bills could put pre-kindergarten services back on the chopping block for the 2011-12 school year.

Local school districts still are owed money they were supposed to receive last fiscal year, forcing them to rely on fund balances or other available revenue to keep their programs intact.

The state still owes Riverton about $80,000 for last year’s pre-K services.

“Hopefully, we’ll get it all eventually. We’re lucky we have some fund balances that are able to support things now while we’re waiting to get the funds from the state,” Mulligan said.

In Rochester, School Superintendent Tom Bertrand said the district hopes to receive the $60,000 it’s still owed for last year’s pre-kindergarten and at least 50 percent of what’s promised for the current school year to keep services intact.

“We’ll still be behind in the funding cycle,” Bertrand said.

Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the state has until Dec. 31 to pay the fiscal 2010 vouchers. The fiscal year ended June 30.

Positions restored

In local school districts, services for young children prior to kindergarten often have two faces: a special education program for children with disabilities, which is required by the state; and a grant-funded program for children with at-risk factors, including learning disabilities, homelessness or low-income households or having experience with the Department of Children and Family Services.

The Early Childhood Block Grant funds the at-risk pre-K program.

Over the summer, it was announced that the state’s funding for early childhood education would stay at $342 million statewide, which was good news to school districts preparing for the worst.

Projections for early childhood funding were shaky, leading many districts to plan for eliminating or scaling back their programs.

The Riverton School Board in March had cut all of the positions in its pre-kindergarten program to help fill a roughly $2 million anticipated funding shortfall for this school year.

After learning the district is supposed to receive another roughly $275,000 for the program this year, the three full-time teachers and three paraprofessionals were hired back, Mulligan said.

The district is serving 127 total at-risk and special education pre-K students, which is slightly fewer than last year.

“When we reinstated the program, it was, for us, only two weeks prior to school starting,” he said. Riverton operates on a balanced calendar.

“Some parents needed to make arrangement sooner, so we feel like we’ve lost a few kids of parents who had to make other arrangements.”

Covering for the state

In the Ball-Chatham School District, the school board had pledged to continue its pre-kindergarten program in some form, though it feared state funding would limit the number of students it could accommodate. One pre-K teacher, a parent coordinator and eight aide positions were tentatively eliminated.

Most of these positions were rehired, and the district has spots for up to 130 pre-K students.

“We’re still operating with one teacher less because of certification scenarios and how we structured and redesigned the program to serve the maximum number of students,” Ball-Chatham School Superintendent Bob Gillum said.

The district currently is owed $160,760 for last year’s pre-K.

If the state continues to delay payments, Gillum said the district plans to use an additional $742,000 it has received from a federal jobs bill to keep the program afloat.

Rochester’s board had voted to eliminate its pre-K classes in February and was eager to reinstate the program when funding became available, Bertrand said, despite the fact the district is still owed about half of the $126,000 it was supposed to receive for the program last year.

“The board wanted to offer it regardless of what happens,” he said.

Staff was hired back, and the district expects to have 55 total pre-kindergarten students this year, about five fewer than last year.

“That’s not due to the budget. We have strict eligibility criteria, and that’s the number that has been identified (to require service),” Bertrand said.

Late notice hurt

Auburn School Superintendent Kathy Garrett said her district was committed to providing pre-K, even when funding was in jeopardy.

“Our board felt fairly certain that it would continue to be funded and probably at a substantial amount, so they didn’t go ahead and RIF (reduction-in-force) everyone,” she said.

Auburn is owed close to $95,000 that was allotted for last year’s services.

Garrett said this year’s program is scaled back slightly from four full-time teachers to three full time and one part time.

Currently, 107 students are enrolled, compared to about 140 last year.

Garrett said the late notice in how much funding would come in might have sent some pre-K parents to seek private programs.

Springfield School District’s pre-K program at capacity
Classes started this week at the Springfield School District’s Early Learning Center, and the facility for at-risk and special education 3- to 5-year-olds is at capacity, Kathy Davis, the district’s pre-kindergarten programs coordinator, said.

A total of 680 students are being served in pre-K and early childhood programs.

“We’re at capacity at the Early Learning Center, and then we have one preschool classroom at McClernand and one preschool at Harvard Park,” Davis said.

The number of students served is down from last year’s 710 because of classroom reconfiguration, she said.

“We were not able to host full-day classrooms this year, so we’re all half-day this year,” she said.

When implementing budget cuts last spring, the school board opted to leave the Early Learning Center, 2501 S. First St., intact.

“The school board and (Superintendent) Dr. (Walter) Milton said regardless of what state funding is, they’ll come through with funding to keep early learning,” district spokeswoman Sara Vincent said.

The majority of funding for the ELC comes through the Early Childhood Block Grant, which is funded by the State Board of Education and serves children with risk factors such as learning delays or low-income households.

Funding for the grant remained flat this year. The district still is owed about $1.4 million of the $3.3 million it was supposed to receive last fiscal year, according to the district’s business office.

Davis said the Early Childhood Block Grant is one of three grants the district receives from the state board to serve students from birth to 5 years old.

Springfield actually saw a slight increase in its Parents as Teachers grant this year, which is for children from birth to 3.

“That allows us to hire another part-time staff member. We have five parent educators who serve 100 families in a home-visiting program, and then we have some learning-together play groups that also meet here at the Early Learning Center,” Davis said.

The district also gets Preschool For All funds, which were flat this year, to increase access to the state-funded pre-kindergarten programs for children who are not considered at-risk.

“But, the nature of that grant is you must serve your most at-risk students first,” Davis said. “We don’t ever get to those others. … It’s a tiered system where programs are required to serve their at-risk students first.”

Some parents turn to private options

The uncertainty surrounding pre-kindergarten funding for Illinois’ public schools over the summer may have led some parents to seek private options for their students this fall, area school officials say.

Several private preschool providers in Springfield said they received more calls from interested parents, but enrollment has remained fairly stable.

“In the middle of the summer we were getting more (calls) than we usually did, and then as pre-K programs started getting funding back, we lost some, but that’s pretty normal for us,” said Debbie Clark, director of early childhood education for the Springfield Park District.

The district offers preschool classes at Washington and Lincoln parks and has about 80 3-,4- and 5-year-olds this year.

At Westminster Co-op Preschool, class sizes are kept small and parental involvement in the classroom is a must, which limits the amount of students who are enrolled, co-director and 3- and 4-year-old teacher Shannon Wentz said.

“We have had several families call who weren’t able to participate in the Early Learning Center program because they’ve closed the satellite school they were interested in,” she said. “I think we’ve been getting more questions this year.”

The co-op has about 40 students this year with a few openings for 4-year-olds.

At the Trinity Learning Center, director Jill Schaefer said the preschool picked up some additional students because they did not qualify for the public school programs.

“It’s not a huge increase,” she said. “Some parents do call and say we’re waiting to find out from such and such school if we’ll be able to be in. And we do have several openings left,” she said of the roughly 50-student program for ages 3 through 5.