Both districts, which share a superintendent and business administrator, will greatly expand their pre-K enrollment in the fall. But state regulations make finding classroom space challenging.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 16, 2019
When school starts in the fall of 2019, families in Collingswood and Oaklyn will have access to greatly expanded, full-day pre-kindergarten programs provided by their public school districts.
That’s thanks to recently expanded eligibility for state grants to fund the operating costs of such programs.
New teachers have been hired for the classrooms, which will consist of about 15 students apiece, and will provide specialized education for very young children.
What has been more of a struggle, however, is finding the classroom space to house the programs.
The Collingswood Board of Education has been exploring potential pre-K sites since the beginning of the year, and, until recently, believed it had finally found a solution with the First United Methodist Church of Collingswood. Unfortunately, the facility didn’t pass a state Department of Education site inspection.
Now the district is pivoting to a new proposal: it plans to locate six of the pre-K classrooms at Thomas Sharp Elementary School, and four more within the Oaklyn Public School. The arrangement reflects the closeness among the two districts, which share administrators, and have expanded the breadth of their send-receive agreement for middle- and high-school-aged students in recent years.
Superintendent Scott Oswald said the district is working “around the clock” to secure alternative space for the program.
“We ran into unexpected challenges with approvals of the church space,” Oswald said in an e-mail. “While we hope to be able to revisit the space, there was no way we could address the concerns by the opening of school in September.”
Some of those challenges included technical provisions related to the physical structure of the facility, which didn’t conform to NJDOE standards on things like the sizes of the rooms proposed for the classes, the locations of bathrooms on the premises, and the presence of fire suppression systems in the building.
The district had neither the time nor the capital budget to address those issues prior to the start of the school year.
School board member Jay Waugh said it felt like “we got the rug pulled out from under us.
“[Pre-k classrooms] have more restrictions and requirements than any educational site; any elementary or high-school classroom site,” Waugh said.
“What was needed for the renovations would not have been able to have been done before school began.”
Moreover, making any infrastructure changes to the Methodist church to accommodate the state requirements would have required a significant capital investment available only through a bond referendum.
Board member Clinton Connor, who works in early childhood education, said the challenges Collingswood has faced on this front are felt by communities across New Jersey. Many eligible districts haven’t applied for the state pre-K funds simply because they couldn’t weather the application process, he said.
“The state rolled out more than $60 million for pre-k expansion, thinking that districts were going to be banging on doors asking for that money, and they didn’t give away half of it because there are so many barriers,” Connor said. “For Collingswood to be dealing with it speaks to their commitment to providing [the program].”
Connor described the shortfalls identified in the state site evaluation as “extremely well-intentioned,” yet unachievable without committing extra dollars to remedying them.
“You’re talking about capital investment, and the state’s response has been, ‘We’re not funding capital,’” he said.
“Okay, but then you can’t fund programming. You can’t just pull these magic classrooms out of your hat.
“It all comes down to state minimum-standard facilities that just don’t exist,” Connor said.
Those obstacles notwithstanding, the benefits of a full-day pre-K program for both students and working families are numerous and well-documented.
Children who need developmental supports receive them at a younger age, sparing downstream special-education costs in later years. Families save money on childcare, and students benefit from the developmental instruction they need to be stronger at fundamental skills like reading.
“One of the deciding factors [in pursuing full-day pre-K] was the fact that this will create more equity across the district,” Waugh said. “Offering every student in Collingswood free pre-K is only going to help them grow.”
“It’s a huge win for the district; it’s a huge win for families,” Connor said. “Unfortunately, it’s not an easy win. Some of it is a little arduous.
“There’s really no downside from the district’s perspective,” he said. “If these programs are of high quality, everybody benefits.”
NJ Pen is free thanks to regular, small contributions. Please support our work.
Get e-mails, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or try Direct Dispatch, our new text service.