East Hampton Pre-K May Move to John Marshall

Enrollment drop leaves space for 90 more kids
The Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center, above, has run a prekindergarten program for the East Hampton School District since 1997. Christine Sampson

Due to a more than 20-percent decline in student enrollment at the John M. Marshall Elementary School over the past four years, the East Hampton School Board is considering moving the district’s prekindergarten program to the elementary school building for the first time.

The district has been paying the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center, formerly the East Hampton Day Care Learning Center, to run its prekindergarten program since 1997. In 2015 it approved funding to expand it to a full day.

At a school budget work session on Tuesday, Beth Doyle, the John Marshall principal, informed board members that the overall student population at the elementary school had dropped from a peak enrollment of 643 students in 2014 to 507 students this year. 

“What this means is that instead of running five sections for each grade, we can run four,” Richard Burns, the district’s superintendent, said yesterday. “We are looking at more classrooms, more space, and a greater ability for teachers to cover an expanded pre-K program.”

Ms. Doyle said that John Marshall now has the capacity and the resources to add “five sections of pre-K to its program,” or up to as many as 90 more children.

The in-house prekindergarten program “would run the same as the normal school day, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.,” Mr. Burns said yesterday.

“This comes as a big surprise to us,” Maureen Wikane, the administrative director of the center, said yesterday. She fears the proposed change would have a devastating impact on the center, which has about 80 East Hampton children enrolled in its pre-K program. It also accepts prekindergarten students from other districts on a tuition basis. “I don’t know what the future might bring,” she said.

“It was the first time the concept was discussed,” Mr. Burns said yesterday, stressing that the proposal is in the “very preliminary stages.” 

School board members on Tuesday discussed the concept in terms of efficiency. Expanding the in-house offerings at John Marshall would allow the district to fully utilize the staff and physical resources it already has in hand, and would result in a significant savings to the district. 

The district is paying $644,000 this year for about 80 East Hampton students to attend the program, up from $500,000 the year before, when fewer were enrolled. 

Though the school board agreed to pay the increase, the center did not accept the five-year contract offered by the district. The current one-year contract ends in June. 

Beyond the loss of students at the Whitmore Center, the change would represent the demise of a long-term working relationship between the school district and the day care center. The program became a model for public-private partnerships in early education initiatives in school districts across the country, according to Laura Anker Grossman, a board member at the Whitmore Center who also served for 21 years on the East Hampton School Board.

“We were pioneers. When I started on the school board in the 1990s, the district didn’t even have a pre-K program,” Ms. Anker Grossman said. 

In 2004, the center received the National School Boards Association’s Magna Award in recognition of its efforts to narrow the achievement gap among students entering kindergarten, through its collaboration with the district, town government, and private donors.

“The board, the district, and the center collaborated for 20 years to bring families a single-setting pre-K program that would provide children with early education opportunities and resources and parents with peace of mind, knowing their children were safe in one place for the entire day,” Ms. Anker Grossman said. She believes the option for an extended day is a critical component of the program’s success. For an additional fee, the center allows children to be dropped off as early as 7:30 a.m. and picked up as late as 5:30 p.m. It also accepts children as young as 18 months old in its other tuition-based early education programs. 

“Without an extended day program, I don’t see how the district is going to be able to support the needs of families,” Ms. Anker Grossman said, “or what this might mean in terms of the burden of additional transportation requirements on children, families, and the district.”

“We would hope an extended-day program could be offered in conjunction with the childhood center,” Mr. Burns said yesterday. “Going forward, we will explore that option.”

The board plans to address the prekindergarten program again at its meeting on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the district office.