Six years ago, during a routine visit to Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village, Julie Resnick realized she had to make a change.
With the park undergoing construction, her older daughter, Chloe, darted in one direction as the younger, Mae, headed in another. For a moment, Ms. Resnick lost sight of Chloe.
“If I can’t take both of my kids to the playground by myself, that’s a problem,” she said to herself.
After renting on the South Fork for several summers, the family decided to move here full-time in May 2009. Though considerably smaller than their two-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side, a 1,000 square-foot house on Napeague Bay in Amagansett ultimately won their hearts. Both the proximity to the ocean and, even more, the caliber of the Amagansett School were big factors in the decision.
“It has a great public nursery school program,” Ms. Resnick said. After touring a handful of private preschools in the city, where tuition bills can soar upward of $40,000 a year, a free high quality public school apparently came as a shock. “When I took a tour of the school, it seemed to me to be at the same level, if not better,” she said. “We really fell in love with it.”
Chloe, now 7, is in second grade. Mae, now 5, is in kindergarten. And come September, Ms. Resnick’s now 2-year-old son, Vance, will enroll in the full-day prekindergarten program for 3-year-olds.
Ms. Resnick, a former technology start-up employee, owner of a digital agency, and culinary school graduate, is currently putting the finishing touches on feedfeed, which she described as “a mobile-app-based social network for food inspiration.” Her husband, Daniel, is a radiologist.
The Resnick family is hardly alone in its affinity for a school that now enrolls 110 students from pre-K to sixth grade. The small class sizes, the dedication and experience of its teaching staff, and the full-day early childhood programs are among advantages commonly cited by families with children at the school.
Four years ago, Juliet Scott and her family moved from San Diego to East Hampton. Two years ago, they moved to Amagansett.
“The number one motivating factor was the school,” said Ms. Scott. Her daughter, Caitlin, now in kindergarten, started in pre-K shortly after their move.
“A full-day program is unusual anywhere,” said Ms. Scott, a stay-at-home mother who works part-time from a home office. Her husband, who grew up in Amagansett, works for a music publishing company. Previously, the family had been paying $500 a month for five hours a week of private nursery school. “I have friends in Michigan, Indiana, and California, and no one’s ever heard of having a full day of preschool offered at their school for free,” she said.
While Ms. Scott initially thought the full day might prove too much, Caitlin has thrived. “I thought she would be so tired, and she’s not.” In her daughter’s kindergarten class of 13, Ms. Scott said it was not uncommon for four teachers to circulate through the room, each working with students in small groups. Her son, Aidan, nearly 3, will enroll this coming fall.
“Amagansett is very welcoming. I love the small-town feel,” said Ms. Scott.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Caitlin attends an after-school program for the lower grades. “They stay an extra hour and run around, play sports, and do various activities, and then the bus takes them home.” The school bus deposits the child at the end of the family driveway at around 4:15 p.m.
“In recent years, families have relocated for a variety of personal reasons,” said Eleanor Tritt, the Amagansett School superintendent. “I have a sense that some families relocate to the East End schools from the city because they prefer the more individualized attention, the sense of community, and the high quality of education, as well as to avoid the very high tuition costs of private schools in the city. All of the East End schools have great programs and probably experience families moving in as well.”
A request to tour the pre-K program was not granted.
Though some local schools, notably Sag Harbor’s, allow nonresidents to pay for their children to attend, Amagansett does not. More than two dozen families are paying $16,622 this year to send their children to the Sag Harbor Elementary School.
At Amagansett, the full-day agenda for 3- and 4-year-olds sets it apart from neighboring districts, most of which offer only half-day programs. Bridgehampton is the only other district offering a full-day pre-K program for both 3-year-olds (which it is running this year as a trial) and 4-year-olds; Montauk offers a full-day program for 4-year-olds only.
Across Long Island, full-day pre-K programs are few and far between. Though New York State provides some funding for 4-year-olds, much less is available for younger children. Dana Friedman, president of the Early Years Institute, a Plainview-based nonprofit that works with early childhood programs across the island, counts Amagansett among a handful of districts in the entire state that offer such programs.
Though both Bill de Blasio, New York City’s new mayor, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have endorsed universal pre-K, the finances have yet to be sorted out, with a number of districts funding early education with their own resources, or, more commonly, not funding it at all.
“When we prepare the budget each year we review all programs to ensure that we are as efficient as possible while maintaining the quality of our programs,” said Ms. Tritt. “Since the tax levy cap legislation has been in force, we continue to carefully scrutinize and evaluate the efficacy of all non-mandated programs, which includes review of the pre-K 3 program, among several others.”
No Amagansett School students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch in the 2011-12 school year, according to state figures, unlike many of their peers in neighboring districts. Of the student body, 74 percent were white, 13 percent were multiracial, 10 percent were Latino, and 2 percent were Asian.
Last summer, when schools across the state saw plummeting test scores, Amagansett far outperformed other local districts, with 71 percent of third graders passing the English language arts test and 57 percent of sixth graders passing both the English and math exams.
Some cite an academic rigor that begins early on.
Britton Bistrian, whose family has lived in Amagansett for six generations, counts the pre-K program among the district’s biggest assets. Her older daughter, Clemens, who attends the 4-year-old program, can already write her name and identify the letters of the alphabet. Her younger daughter, Merritt, will begin the 3-year-old program in September.
The small classes, however, can be both good and bad, Ms. Bistrian and several other parents said. When there are only four to six children in a class, particularly in the youngest grades, there can be difficulty achieving an ideal boy-to-girl ratio, she pointed out. (School-wide, the average class size was 15 for the 2011-2012 year.)
When she hears from friends in Boston and New York who must subject their young children to aptitude tests when they apply for kindergarten placement in both public and private schools, Ms. Bistrian feels sympathy but also relief.
Ms. Bistrian, who is trained as an architect, runs a consultancy firm specializing in land use. Her husband is a contractor. “Signing up babies while in utero for nursery school waiting lists is unfathomable to me,” she said. “I’m relieved we don’t have to deal with all of that.”