East Hampton Moves Ahead on In-House Pre-K

There is plenty of space for prekindergartners to share a lunch period with kindergartners when the younger students are brought into the John M. Marshall Elementary School building next year, the principal said. Hilary Thayer Hamann

The East Hampton School Board unanimously agreed to move forward with a full-day in-house prekindergarten program at the John M. Marshall Elementary School beginning in the 2018-19 school year.

“The board agreed that this can take place and should take place,” said Richard Burns, the school superintendent. “As soon as we’re ready to start the registration process, we will alert the community as to when and how that will take place. We want parents to know we will have a seat for every 4-year-old in the district.”

For the past 20 years, the district has outsourced pre-K education to the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center, formerly the East Hampton Day Care Learning Center. Two years ago, the services expanded from a half day to a full day, and the budget for the services increased as well. 

At the regular school board meeting on Tuesday night, board members discussed the costs to the district for paying the center to run the full-day pre-K program as having increased from $500,000 in 2016, to $644,000 in 2017, to a proposed $844,000 in 2018. According to Mr. Burns, “That number is 1 percent of our entire budget.”

Board members also cited the center’s ongoing resistance to accepting a multi-year contract. “We tried to get a long-term contract two times unsuccessfully,” said James P. Foster, the school board president. “We made it clear that we need to look into other options.” The center’s current one-year contract ends in June.

It was estimated at the meeting that the proposed change could result in an immediate savings to the district of ­approximately $300,000, though the amount saved can be expected to increase annually, since the costs of incorporating the program will be highest up front.

Despite the substantial savings the change represents, the decision to move the pre-K program to John Marshall from the Eleanor Whitmore Center is still being classified as a consequence of declining enrollment. “It came about organically,” Mr. Burns said. “Sometimes in life these things occur. And then, next step, the numbers made sense.”

“Previously we couldn’t get the pre-K into our system,” John Ryan, a school board member, said at the meeting. “Now because we can, I’m fully supportive.” Mr. Ryan added of the Eleanor Whitmore Center, “We appreciate what they have done. They stepped up. We hope to continue to have a relationship with them. We have kids who will continue to need care there.”

At last week’s budget meeting, Beth Doyle, John Marshall’s principal, advised the school board that her school had seen a loss of 150 elementary students between 2014 and 2018.

This year, “per grade the number works out to about 67 students in kindergarten, 68 in first grade, 74 in second, 86 in third, 112 in fourth, and 100 in fifth,” Ms. Doyle said.

“We looked at a number of different scenarios for incorporating the pre-K program. The one that made most sense was for every grade to have four sections instead of five. The average class size might be 22 to 23 per class grades K-4, but for next year’s fifth grade, the number of students might be 26 to 27.”

This was the only concern raised by parents at Tuesday’s board meeting in relation to the proposed change. Those who spoke applauded the addition of the pre-K program, but said they were worried about overcrowding for next year’s fifth graders. 

Ms. Doyle understood and has taken this into consideration. She said she attempted to correct for this by making sure every section has two adults, a teacher and an assistant, in order to maintain a 1-to-13 adult-to-child ratio. She said it is also possible that some of the current fourth-grade students could leave the district.

In terms of new hires, Ms. Doyle said the inclusion of the pre-K will only require one new full-time teacher. She will first draw from among the staff who are certified to teach the pre-K classes. She plans to ask them their preferences before posting for the position.

Regarding parents who might need early drop-off and late pick-up, the district is considering all options. For example, Ms. Doyle said that John Marshall has a breakfast program that begins at 7:30, which could accommodate pre-K students, and that Project Most runs an after-school program there for kindergarten through fifth graders. 

“We would love to continue to have a cooperative relationship with the Eleanor Whitmore Center,” Mr. Burns said. “It would help with children’s needs before and after the school program. We look forward to having that discussion with them at the appropriate time.”