Published On: Tue, Apr 25th, 2017

South Hunterdon Regional School District to Expand Preschool Program; Local Day Cares to Adjust

Lambertville Public School (Thomas Seymour: CC BY-SA 2.0)

South Hunterdon Regional School District (SHRSD) will expand its preschool program for the upcoming 2017-18 school year to include general education students 3-4 years old on a tuition basis.

In previous years at Lambertville Public School, only special education students were admitted for preschool. Stockton Borough School had a tuition pre-K program, with dismissal at 12:15pm, for general education students through the 2015-16 school year.

Now, however, SHRSD will be collectively offering an “integrated” preschool program, opening up seats to all district 3 and 4-year olds, which includes children from Lambertville, Stockton and West Amwell.

“Administration, parents, teachers, community members, and the BOE have worked to put this program in place.  The regionalization has made this more possible as a result of more personnel/resources being available,” wrote SHRSD Director of Curriculum Geoff Hewitt.

The deadline for families to sign up was March 31, and a lottery was held on April 5 to determine which children would get the available seats. Sixteen general education students will start the program in September, eight in each of the two classes. South Hunterdon will implement one of the four state-approved curricula, Tools of the Mind, into the newly-integrated preschool classes.

Tuition-based pre-K and preschool programs already exist in the county — for example, East Amwell has had an integrated tuition-based pre-K program for 12 years. In Mercer County, Princeton also has tuition preschool for regular education students, albeit at a much higher rate than what South Hunterdon has proposed.

But this expanded offering has made some local private day cares concerned.

Lisa Erxleben, director of Lambertville Academy, which is operated by nonprofit Fisherman’s Mark, acknowledged they met with SHRSD administration and BOE members to discuss how their relationship would proceed with the new district offerings.

“Our experience is that most working families need extended hours, which is why we offer a 7am – 7pm schedule for one price,” according to Erxleben. “Therefore, we will adjust our staffing as needed. But again, our program and the school have always had a remarkably seamless partnership, and there’s no reason for this to change.”

Mt. Airy Happy Time School Owner and Director Jennifer Ruehle saw this coming and noted that most day care profits come from preschool/ pre-K students, not infants or toddlers. Ruehle includes families from Pennsylvania among her clientele.

“I’ve been doing this 25 years, and knew eventually South Hunterdon would be participating. We’ll just try to do our best and make it work,” she said.

Both Ruehle and Diane Strober at Half Pint Day Care and Preschool in West Amwell, questioned whether South Hunterdon would be able to cover the cost of the new program without raising taxes.

“Once this new preschool program is implemented, local taxes will most likely increase annually as it is not a one time cost.” said Strober.

New Jersey public schools are not required to offer preschool services (or even kindergarten) to general education students, but the overall trend has been increasing. New York City enacted “universal pre-K” in 2015 at no cost to families, and this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed free preschool for all NYC 3-year olds. New Jersey has expanded their fully and partially subsidized pre-K programs, though none of these subsidized districts are in Hunterdon County.

New Jersey public schools are required to provide preschool services for special education students in the least restrictive environment, which might explain why many districts have implemented integrated programs when possible.

“The typical New Jersey family with an infant and toddler, earning the state median income of about $85,000, spends more than $20,000 a year on center-based child care, or about 24 percent of their gross income,” reads a December 2013 report by the research and advocacy group Advocacy for Children in New Jersey.

Certain local families may qualify for reduced preschool tuition at SHRSD if they are also eligible for the free/reduced lunch program. Those who meet income eligible guidelines, can obtain a child care subsidy through NORWESCAP Child and Family Services for private area day cares.

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About the Author

- Steve Chernoski is a writer, film director and teacher who lives in Lambertville. Here's his website: http://stevechernoski.com.

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