On a recent winter morning, parents of 3 and 4 year olds line up before dawn in hopes of getting one of the spots in the Watertown Public Schools’ Pre-Kindergarten program.
This PreK program is one of half of the district’s programs being considered to go into a new early childhood education center as part of the elementary school building projects. On Monday night, the School Committee discussed whether Watertown should have a centralized location for Watertown’s preschool and PreK programs.
Today, the district runs one PreK class at each of the three elementary schools, along with seven classes of preschool – five at Hosmer Elementary School and two at the former Phillips School (which is also the location of the school administration offices).
If an early childhood center is built, the plan is to put it next to the Hosmer after some of the buildings on the west side of campus are torn down, said Scott Dunlap of Ai3 – the architect designing the three elementary schools. The proposed center would be able to handle more children, with five PreK classes and eight preschool classes.
Karen Feeney, Watertown’s Early Childhood Director, said by having a centralized PreK program, people would not have to line up in hopes of being the first person in line for the PreK class at their local school.
There would be benefits besides just accommodating more students, Feeney said.
“Teachers will be able to collaborate with teachers who really focus on the same field of education,” Feeney said.
Preschool teachers do have some opportunities to meet in one group, but the teachers at the Phillips School do not get to interact with the others on a day-to-day basis.
Students who go to preschool benefit in their education down the line, said Superintendent Dede Galdston.
“They have lower incidents of special needs, lower incidents of grade remediation and the graduation rates are higher,” Galdston said.
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read said she was one of the parents lining up when her children were going into PreK.
“I was part of that line. My husband was there at 5:30 in the morning and someone else was there at 4:45,” Rayman-Read said. “We need to look at a different system, possibly a lottery.”
Some parents whose children went through the PreK program at their local school said the would miss parts of that system. Brian Donato said his son went to PreK at Hosmer, and got to go to some of the facilities used by the big kids.
“They ate at the cafeteria and went to the gym. I would hate for him to miss out on that,” said Donato.
He added that going back to school in kindergarten was old hat, and that he “ran into school without even saying goodbye to my wife.”
Galdston said that the students would share some of the facilities with students at Homser. One thing that would be gained with a centralized program, Galdston said, is an economy of scale.
Others noted that the PreK program is a tuition-based one (costing $7,600 this year) and some worried that the students that may benefit the most from being in the program may come from families who cannot afford the tuition.
Another parent said that she would have liked to take part in the district’s preschool program but it is not an option for families where both parents work full time.
The idea of universal preschool being required in Massachusetts has been discussed in the last several years. Galdston said that the momentum behind such a move has fallen back a bit in recent years.
The center would not be big enough to accommodate the estimated number of students that would live in town – an estimated 400 3-5 year olds, Galdston said. If that program was passed the district would have to look at ways to accommodate the students.
Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli said that the town has a rare chance to plan for an early childhood center by being able to plan for it as the district remodels or rebuilds its schools.
“The idea of a early childhood center came up two years ago,” Piccirilli said. “It is a once in a generation opportunity.”
The School Committee did not make any recommendations Monday night, but will bring the subject back up at its Feb. 5 meeting. That night, members will vote on the early childhood center as well as the other subjects covered on Monday night – Lowell School being considered as a site for the high school and what capacity should be built into the new elementary schools. Read more about the later two subjects below: