Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Let’s talk more about preschool

Last week’s editorial column talked about Sen. Ruth Hardy’s “bolder vision” for childcare “that deserves further scrutiny.” I agree about it needing further scrutiny and would love if the Addison Independent followed up on that idea by talking to the Early Educators in Addison County, the Vermont Association for the Education of the Young Child, and the Let’s Grow Kids Early Education and Childcare advocacy group who all worked very hard to make sure Ruth Hardy’s plan for putting all 4-year-olds into public schools for full time school was removed from the bill. What was kept in the bill was a plan to study the current Universal Preschool (UPK 10 hours of paid preschool a week), to be done with a wide range of stakeholders and with an explicit emphasis to keep the “Mixed Delivery” that currently provides the majority of preschool education. The goal is to provide full-time preschool for 4-year-olds in private and public settings and to continue to provide preschool for 3-year-olds.

The editorial states that the change to put all 4-year-olds in public schools was left out of the bill “because of concerns from private daycare centers.” One director of an Addison County Preschool and Childcare Center was quoted in Zoom testimony in the early stages of the bill as saying that this would be “a predictable disaster.”

I have been teaching preschool for 26 years. I am an “early educator” at a private, non-profit, parent cooperative preschool serving a mixed ages classroom or 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. I teach, with my team, 30 different children each week, 20 a day. Private preschools have been providing the early education in the state for at least 50 years while the public school system essentially ignored preschool education for most of that time. Addison County, in particular, is home to a network of exceptionally high-quality private preschools. The last few years of the pandemic has seen a big influx of grant money to improve quality, expand capacity, and support the workforce. My school is strictly preschool; taking away all of the 4-year-olds to public school and changing or limiting the UPK funding for the 3-year-olds would have put our 44-year-old school out of business. We have an amazing preschool infrastructure (outdoor classroom, beautiful indoor classroom, sledding hill, huge playground, play loft and every imaginable material for preschoolers) and just built a new addition onto the school last summer so we could increase capacity from 15 children a day to 20. The “preschool” developmental stage is 3-, 4-, young 5-year-olds. That age group gets along fantastically as they are all deep in the world of learning through imaginary play. Some schools choose to teach 3- and 4-year-olds separately. Having children for two or three full years of preschool is highly advantageous for them in terms of consistency, building relationships, and for fully knowing and supporting a child as they move through the preschool years.

A business manager for one of the local school districts told me he had looked into the cost of gearing up for adding all 4-year-olds to the public schools and said the cost was prohibitive. The playgrounds and lunchroom tables at public schools are not designed for preschoolers. A developmentally appropriate setting for preschoolers involves a wide range of hands-on materials that would need to be purchased. One teacher in an elementary school with a public preschool told me everyone loves the little preschoolers. Another teacher at a different elementary school preschool setting told me “they hate having us there. The other teachers unhappily close their doors because the preschoolers are noisily playing.” As they should be.

The Addy Indy editorial also mentions “using the expertise of the public school system” and “getting the best bang for the public’s dollars here is to fully use existing capacity in our schools and expand that to younger students.” The early educators in Addison County heard from a representative of Counselling Service of Addison County this year that the behavior problems in the Addison County public schools has become significantly worse recently, including in the kindergartens. We have all read in our local newspapers about some serious issues in the local public schools. Frankly, parents have expressed to me a disinterest in increasing preschooler’s exposure to that. The public schools, largely, do not currently have the “expertise” in the early education of preschoolers.

I believe the thinking was, ‘Let’s take all the 4-year-olds now to bring in more money for our public schools and the private preschools will have to turn to the toddlers and babies to survive. All the childcare problems would be solved!’ It was unclear to me what the plan was for the 3-year-old preschoolers who have been getting UPK funding for many years. I absolutely love my job as a preschool teacher. Educators find their preferred age niche. Two-year-olds, and infants obviously, are at a different developmental stage than 3-year-old preschoolers and do not belong in the same group classroom. That said, mixed ages in small home-based childcare can, and does, work beautifully.

I understand that there are capacity issues across the state and that families want more preschool time paid for and available. It makes no sense to throw out the high-quality preschool capacity we already have with the private schools that have been partnering with the school districts for around 10 years (we were early adopters of UPK in Addison County) to provide early education. What would be great is to expand UPK funding for 3- and 4-year-old’s beyond the 10 hours a week that is currently funded. Almost all children attend preschool for more than 10 hours a week and many attend full-time, both 3’s and 4’s. There was an influx of children when UPK funding began and a big increase in days per week of attendance since families could afford more days when 10 hours was funded.

Part of the childcare bill increases eligibility for state subsidy funding (an additional funding source above UPK) for children in preschools and childcare. Right now, we have one child who qualifies for a subsidy out of 30 children enrolled. An increase in eligibility would have to be huge to make up for ending UPK funding for my 16 three-year-old preschoolers currently getting UPK funding for 10 hours a week. I haven’t even touched on the financial effect this would have had on larger childcare centers where the UPK funding, and having preschoolers, helps offset the higher cost of providing infant and toddler care with very high teacher-to-child ratios.

Across the country “mixed delivery,” meaning preschools in both private centers that partner with school districts and public school-based preschools, is the norm. That is why up to the last days before the S.56 Childcare bill was passed, Let’s Grow Kids was asking people to contact their legislators to support the bill AND to insist that mixed delivery be kept in the bill. That is what Vermont’s early education community wants and thinks is best for our children. The bill is not law yet, it may get vetoed, and it would hopefully have a veto override. The early education and childcare workforce supports the bill as written. I appreciate Sen. Hardy introducing the bill and would welcome a visit to our preschool anytime. Thanks to the Addy Indy for being such a great community resource.

Kerry Malloy

Lincoln

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