Will Oysterponds offer a preschool program next fall?

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Preschool teacher Jen Skuggevik teaches writing to students on Tuesday morning at Greenport School.

Oysterponds could be primed to add a preschool program next fall, judging from emails that have been flying among school officials and residents in the past two weeks.

Dick Leslie, who with his wife, Ellie, has run the district’s summer program, offered the initial push with an Oct. 20 email to school board members and others in the community.

“Early childhood education is a subject Oysterponds has fiddled around with for as long as I can remember but we have never done anything about it,” Mr. Leslie wrote. He included a link to a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that quotes Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago. Dr. Heckman writes that the return on investment in early childhood education pays for itself.

“Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or reducing gaps,” Dr. Heckman wrote in American Educator.“It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5.”

Mr. Leslie said he doubts anyone would be against the idea of preschool education program, “except perhaps for the cost.”

School board president Deborah Dumont said she plans to bring the issue to board members at this month’s meeting.

Commenting as a citizen rather than board president, Mr. Dumont said she supports “quality early childhood education. We know every dollar we spend on early childhood education saves us $7 later.”

Answering an earlier challenge from Mr. Leslie to find out why Quogue consistently has the highest test scores of any East End district and ranks second statewide, principal Francoise Wittenburg visited that district with some Oysterponds teachers in October.

“I spoke to the superintendent in Quogue and he attributed the success of his school to his pre-K program and a very supportive community,” Ms. Wittenburg wrote in an email to board members and others in the district.

Quoque’s preschool program operates from 8 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. most weekdays and lasts one day of the week until 3 p.m. A new program called “Tools of the Mind,” developed at the College of Denver, has provided the base of the preschool curriculum, Ms. Wittenburg said.

The primary goal is to teach children “self-regulation” with a strong connection to school readiness, she said. Students entering kindergarten from the preschool program are better prepared and “able to focus and stay on task better,” she said.

Quoque offers its preschool program to district children for free, but charges $4,800 per year for out-of-district students.

“I also agree that we, as educators, have our greatest impact in the early years, especially birth through age 7,” Ms. Wittenburg said.

The state has recognized the value of early childhood education, even mandating it by 2012, only to roll back the mandate because of budget constraints.

While a preschool program at Oysterponds would initially increase costs, board member Dorothy-Dean Thomas said in an email, “If it meant being able to potentially declassify a [special education] student before they leave Oysterponds, it would mean a tuition difference.” She estimated that at about $15,000 instead of an average of $54,000 for a special education student.

Neighboring Greenport, which educates Oysterponds junior and senior high school students, has a preschool program operated by SCOPE Educational Services on its campus. The district was able to allocate some money in its budget to the program, but still charges tuition, even for local students.

“The idea that any parent should have to pay tuition for something so essential as early childhood education only penalizes those families most in need and is self-defeating,” Mr. Leslie said.

Board member Thom Gray has called on his colleagues to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the idea.

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