Walking into the new preschool classroom at Allendale Elementary School recently, Principal Lynn Taylor is excited: It’s the first time she has been in the space since the former science classroom was cleaned out at the end of the previous school year.
Looking around the room, she’s all smiles as she surveys the miniature blue tables and chairs neatly tucked against the walls, and the piles of games and teaching supplies still wrapped in plastic. A new rug covered in letters, numbers and color vocabulary words sits at the center of the room, waiting to welcome 12 little learners come September.
“It’s all brand-new and beautiful stuff,” Taylor said. “I can’t wait for it all to be functioning. It’s certainly a great space.”
It’s a scene playing out in elementary classrooms across Pittsfield Public Schools — to considerable excitement.
This year, the district significantly is expanding its preschool program to all its elementary schools — four of them will offer preschool for the first time — and increasing program capacity as part of a push to create integrated preschool classrooms for special education students.
The program now has space for 165 preschoolers. As of Friday, the classrooms were about 78 percent full with the enrollment of 19 3-year-olds and 109 4-year-olds.
The expansion means new furniture, classroom supplies, curriculum, teachers and paraprofessionals are coming to the district as well — at a cost of about $720,000.
The expansion is part of a larger state trend that shows more students are making it into early childhood programs before kindergarten.
In Massachusetts, about 14 percent of 3-year-olds and 26 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in public school preschool programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2020 State of Preschool report.
That’s up from almost two decades ago, when about 12 percent of 3-year-olds and 12 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in a public preschool program.
“I feel like it’s a once-in-a-career opportunity that we have all of these new things,” said Katie Darling, a preschool special education teacher at Capeless Elementary School. Darling has been a preschool teacher for the past 18 years — the past four in the Pittsfield district.
“These children are coming back into the classroom after being isolated for so long and they get a brand-new experience,” Darling said. “I’m just so, so excited.”
For years, the district has offered preschool at Crosby and Capeless elementary schools to 3- and 4-year-olds with an individualized education program — the plan created between families, teachers and special education specialists for the specific additional supports and services a child needs to thrive in school.
School districts are required to provide care for any student age 3 to 22 with an IEP.
General education students quickly have filled the available spaces at half-day classrooms in Morningside and Conte elementary schools, classes that generally are separate from those with their special education peers. Superintendent Joseph Curtis told the City Council during a budget presentation in May that the district typically has a waiting list of 40 students for its preschool classes.
But, that separation ends this year. Special Education Director Jenny Stokes said that creating a more inclusive learning environment is the main driver of the expanded preschool program.
“The idea for the expansion is to have special education students fully integrated with their typical peers,” Stokes said. “And it allows pre-K students to attend their home pre-K program.”
The district is moving this year to an integrated classroom model in preschool classes. Under the new classroom model, students with IEPs will learn side by side with their “typical peers” — students without and IEP — who will help model learning in the classroom.
It’s a move that Stokes calls a “win-win” for both groups of students. The integrated classroom model requires specific ratios of either 15 typical peers to five IEP students or eight typical peers to seven IEP students in a classroom.
To meet those ratios, the district is adding an additional 67 spots for general education students.
Starting in September, each of the district’s eight elementary schools will have one full-day integrated preschool classroom. There also will be one 3-year-old classroom at Morningside Community School and one at Crosby Elementary for the district’s youngest students with an IEP.
That expansion means that preschool programs will be offered for the first time at Williams, Egremont, Allendale and Stearns elementary schools.
An opportunity to expand students’ worlds
For the past year-and-a-half, Jenny Gregg and her family have soaked up the additional family time they have had together as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But, as the summer draws to a close, Gregg is looking forward to a little balance coming back into her 4-year-old son Caleb’s life.
“Family time is needed, but so is that space for him to be able to grow and to be who he is being called to be,” said Gregg, a reverend at the Cathedral of the Beloved — a church community that worships on the lawn of St. Joseph Church in Pittsfield.
Gregg said she is excited for what’s in store for Caleb this year. In a couple of weeks, he will start at his neighborhood school, Egremont Community School, as part of the school’s inaugural class of preschoolers. Last year, he attended Capeless’ half-day program with other students from across the district with an IEP.
On Sept. 7, he will join the 12 other students who will be his peers for the next 14 years through Pittsfield Public Schools. He will meet future best friends, study partners and teammates — the children who will take him through his childhood and young adult years.
“I’m excited for him; I’m excited to see what friends he makes and who he ends up talking about,” Gregg said. “Like how does his world evolve and expand and what new curiosities does he find himself interested in — outside of cars and trucks and the letters of the alphabet.”
This year, along with learning about numbers, colors, letters and personal relationships, the preschool will have music, art and technology classes.
Morningside preschool teacher Rachel McCann said she always is blown away by how much preschool students learn and grow over the course of the year.
“I really like the fact that they are in such a place of wanting to learn so much that they’re absorbing … they just want to know about everything,” McCann said. “The wonder and the eagerness that they bring to school every day is just a delight to be around.”
In 2017, the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy and the Brookings Institution conducted a review of the decades of previous studies on the impact of preschool on children’s later development. The report found that preschool students have higher literacy, language and math skills as they enter into kindergarten than their peers who did not attend a preschool program.
The potential academic boost is a bonus for the district’s future test scores, but teachers and families said it’s the social and emotional impact they are most eager for.
“It develops awareness for all the children,” Gregg said of the integrated model. “So, children will learn early on in the classroom that their peers learn differently, they experience life differently. And that will be the foundation of their social-emotional formation.”
For children entering preschool this year, almost half of their life has been spent living through the pandemic and everything that has brought with it — mask mandates, shutdowns and remote learning. Darling said that is why this group of children needs preschool now more than ever.
“All of those things that we just organically and intuitively do with our children, like bring them to the grocery store, bring them to church, bring them to see grandma, playing with their cousins — for all the right reasons [have stopped],” Darling said. “Children have been kept safe at home. So, we’re going to be working a lot on social-emotional skills.”
Even outside coronavirus times, Darling said that preschool in an integrated classroom presents students with a unique opportunity.
“One thing I really want people to understand, especially the parents who are coming into this program, is that the integrated pre-K classroom is different than a kindergarten that has general education students and students who are on an IEP,” Darling said. “In preschool, everyone’s included.”
She explained that after preschool, special education students go on to different classroom settings, depending on whether they have “a severe disability or moderate disability.”
Children with moderate or mild disabilities are included in classes with their typical peers, while students with more extensive needs go to classes that can offer them more individualized support.
In an integrated preschool class “it’s total acceptance,” Darling said.
She added that “we’re differentiating everything so that everyone has access to everything we’re doing and learning.”
An end to their waiting
Stokes said principals this year moved mountains — and classrooms — to make preschool a reality for their students.
“Some of the schools really had to be very — like Williams and Egremont had to be very creative in terms of finding space, and actually Allendale, too,” Stokes said. “But, they wanted pre-K so badly that they’re moving people around and doing all kinds of really creative space [arrangements].”
At Allendale, the new preschool space once served as the school’s science classroom. The new 3-year-old classroom at Morningside used to be the home of the Kids Club.
The expansion isn’t just bringing new space arrangements to elementary schools, it’s bringing new faces, too.
The district budgeted an additional $720,000 this year to hire four new preschool teachers, two elementary specialist teachers, 10 paraprofessionals and four bus monitors to help shepherd the new preschoolers through the school year.
There will be two paraprofessionals and one special education certified teacher in each classroom, to make sure the needs of all the students are being met.
The district’s existing preschool teachers said they couldn’t be happier for the wave of new staff and students.
“I’m so happy that the city is able to invest in this really critical area, because when I started teaching pre-K, I didn’t feel like there were enough of these classes to serve all the families in the city,” McCann said.
McCann has been in the district for 21 years, teaching a variety of grades at Morningside. She has spent the past eight years as a preschool teacher.
“The importance of early childhood education and early intervention is not a new idea,” McCann said. “I’m really, really glad that the money has come available, because it’s been something that I’ve really been looking forward to having.”
Darling agreed. She said one of the reasons she joined the district was because it offered her a chance to be part of a public preschool program.
Darling has been a preschool teacher for 18 years, the past four of which have been spent as an integrated preschool teacher at Capeless.
National Institute for Early Education Research Massachusetts report 2020
“This was a real rare occurrence,” Darling said. “There weren’t a lot of public school preschools around anymore, and if you wanted to keep teaching preschool, you had to go to the private schools.”
The expansion is a bonus not only for families with children with IEPs, but working and low-income families as well. Public school preschool is free, unlike private child care for 4-year-olds in Berkshire County, which Child Care Aware of America calculated averaged to about $10,000 annually in 2019.
“[Preschool] is something that’s needed for all, regardless of whether or not you can afford to put your child in a program,” McCann said. “It’s really great that there will be all these opportunities for kids to be in school … and not have it cost a fortune.”
District officials said they know they can’t support the entirety of the city’s need for preschool.
Curtis told the City Council during a budget presentation in May that with this expansion, there is no room for additional preschool classes in the existing elementary schools.
Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke said that with the new preschool spots this year, the district believes it will be able to serve just under half of the group of students who will start in the district as kindergarteners in the coming year.
“We’re not going to be able to be the be-all and end-all for all families,” Behnke told the council. “But, we do want to provide good inclusion models for our students who we are mandated to serve as part of our special education program.”
Darling said that, for now, she will “savor” this moment that will bring more young minds full of curiosity and questions to her classroom.
“I think we need to just enjoy this moment, savor this moment and be excited about it,” she said. “And show how well it works so that there’s a reason to keep it around.”