Starting next fall, Watertown will offer free pre-kindergarten classes for 90 4-year-olds in town as part of a new universal PreK program.
Since she arrived in Watertown, Superintendent Dede Galdston has been talking about offering universal PreKindergarten. She hoped that the district would get financial help from the federal or state government, but that has not materialized.
“Sooner or later, if we feel this is something that is true to our core values, we might want to consider doing it ourselves,” Galdston told the School Committee on Monday. “So, I think we are at the moment and time where I think we do so.”
The first year, the 2024-25 school year, Watertown will have five classes of 18 students. This would be enough for about 40 percent of the students anticipated to enroll in the Watertown Public Schools, Galdston said. In the third year of the program, a sixth classroom will be added at Watertown High School. This will be part of a program where WHS students will work with an early childhood teacher as part of their Chapter 74 career and technical education class, Galdston said.
The spots will be filled through a lottery, Galdston said, and any 4-year old who does not get into the program will have the opportunity to attend Watertown’s Early Steps Preschool at no cost, based on space availability.
Galdston added that tuition for the district’s preschool program would be eliminated starting next year.
School Committee members were excited about the district starting universal PreK, and had some suggestions for the lottery.
Kendra Foley, chair of the School Committee, said the addition of the new program is another way Watertown has been a leader in education.
“Watertown is on the vanguard of full-day kindergarten and we are going to be on the vanguard for universal preK,” Foley said to Galdston. “Thanks for your work.”
School Committee member Jessica Middlebrook encouraged school officials to spread the word about the new program as far as possible.
“I want to make sure we have a plan for outreach because it is so exciting to have 4 year olds attending school for free next year,” Middlebrook said. “I hope we are making sure we are reaching out to every corner in our community to make sure that we are reaching as many kids as we can.”
(See more information about the universal PreK program in the Superintendent’s letter to the community).
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read said she hopes that the lottery system gives priority to students from lower socioeconomic families or with special needs. Galdston said that the district will try to prioritize families that are economically disadvantaged in the first lottery.
“Ideally, yes, I do think part of it is financial based. It is a great opportunity for families to have not only an excellent preK experience but also a financial benefit they might not be able to have,” Galdston said. “It may not happen the first year but certainly it is the goal.”
School Committee member Lisa Capoccia said one of the reason she likes the program is it will help with equity, particularly with graduation rates.
Galdston shared data from the universal preK program in the Boston Public Schools, which has been operating for 20 years. They found students who attended preK had a 9 percentage point increase in SAT test participation, a 6 percentage point higher graduation rate, and an 18 percentage point increase in attending college.
The PreK will join the Early Steps Preschool at Hosmer Elementary School to make up the district’s Early Childhood Center. Each classroom will have a teacher and an instructional aide. Galdston said that would cost $658,676. The cost of the program would be built into the district’s operating budget over four years.
The first year, the district would use $300,000 of the $600,000 in the preschool revolving fund, which comes from the tuition from the Early Steps Preschool, Galdston said. The remainder will have to be made up from other sources. Galdston said that the district gets between $200,000 and $400,000 in savings from staff turnover each year, with staff retiring or leaving and lower-salaried employees replacing them. She also said the City may be another source of funds.
In year two, $200,000 would be offset from the preschool revolving fund, and $100,000 from turnover savings or City appropriation. The third year, $100,000 in offset funds would be used and $100,000 from turnover savings or City appropriation. In year four, $100,000 would come from turnover savings or a City appropriation.
City Council President Mark Sideris, who also serves on the School Committee, thanked Galdston and the Watertown School administration for designing the new schools to accommodate universal preK.
“It has been the Superintendent’s vision for a long time. I fully support doing this,” Sideris said. “I had a couple of conversations with the City Manager (George Proakis) and he thinks this is a great idea, as well, so I think there is an opportunity for City support as well to make this a reality.”
The School Committee voted unanimously to support the financial plan to support year one of Watertown’s universal preK program. See the Superintendent’s Universal PreK report by clicking here.