HARWICH—Perhaps Plato got it right. Twenty-four centuries ago the Greek philosopher declared that, “The beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of the young...”
Educators and leadership within the Cape Cod Collaborative and the Dennis-Yarmouth and Monomoy Regional School Districts couldn’t agree more. The regional school districts, with the Cape Cod Collaborative, have partnered with private preschools to improve access to quality preschool education for all three- and four-year-olds across Chatham, Dennis, Harwich, and Yarmouth.
“Access to quality, early education is critical to a child’s success,” says Jan Rotella, Cape Cod Collaborative Grant Manager. Rotella cites a multi-year study of New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program, which shows the significant, positive impact that preschool education programs have on a child’s academic skills in language arts and literacy, mathematics, and science.
Today, not all Cape Cod children have the opportunity to attend quality preschool programs. “Cape-wide, we have an estimated 35 percent of children entering kindergarten with no preschool experience,” says Dr. Christopher Martes, head of the Boston education advocacy group Strategies for Children. “This represents a glaring need for improved access to quality preschool programs.”
Census data from 2010 indicates that in the four partnering towns there are approximately 430 children per age group (ages less than 1 to 5 years old) at any given time. With 430 children per age group and 35 percent of kindergarten students without prior preschool experience, there are 150 kindergarten students entering public school in the partnering towns with no prior preschool experience. That number doubles to 300 children per year when combining three and four year olds.
The gap in opportunity is symptomatic of risk factors facing Cape Cod children. Barnstable County data from Census 2000 and the American Community Survey (2010–2014) indicate that child poverty rates across Cape Cod increased from 8.6 percent in 2000 to 15.4 percent in 2014. According to the Cape Cod Collaborative, increased childhood poverty is compounded by the opioid epidemic, housing instability, foster care crisis, and homelessness.
The Dennis-Yarmouth and Monomoy regional school districts and the Cape Cod Collaborative came a step closer to bridging these gaps when, in January, the partners received a Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative grant from the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC). Part of $500,000 in EEC grants awarded to 13 cities and towns, the $39,000 planning grant funded the development of a model strategic plan designed to strengthen and increase access to preschool and early childhood education while building upon the successes of existing programs.
On June 14 at Cape Cod Technical High School, “Cape Cod Collaborative, Two-District Project” leaders presented a draft proposal of the model strategic plan to community members. In developing the proposal, the Project sought input from communities, families, students, and agencies to identify the needs and challenges of expanding early childhood education. A finalized proposal will be submitted to the EEC on June 30.
The proposal is the culmination of more than four months of work by the Project’s preschool expansion grant (PEG) planning committee, comprising representatives from Dennis-Yarmouth and Monomoy Regional School Districts, community-based preschools in the four towns, local social agencies, (such as Barnstable County Public Health, Massachusetts Department of Children and Family Services), and directors of the Cape Cod Child Development Program (Head Start).
“What is so extraordinary about this group is that you have 22 disparate individuals who could have come to the committee with their own agendas,” says Rotella, “but that didn’t happen. The people involved have truly focused on finding common ground, and making this about the kids and closing the early education gap.”
The strategic plan proposes using a mixed delivery model—one that provides early childhood education in both private and public school settings. “The public schools can’t shoulder it alone,” says Julie Hall, grant coach for the Cape Cod Collaborative. “The proposed model really leverages the strengths of the public and private settings, giving families the freedom of choice, which we felt was very important.”
Under the proposal, public school administrators and local directors of licensed, private preschools would maintain their respective authority. The collaborating partners would work with their own staffs and faculties to ensure implementation of the goals for early childhood education (see chart).
The proposed model incorporates elements of the PEG model, including equalizing salaries of private school teachers holding a bachelor’s degree with those of their public school counterparts; classroom staffing requirements (a child to teacher ratio of 10:1 and at least one educator with a bachelor’s degree); use of formative assessment tools and curricula that align with state standards and guidelines; and family engagement activities that support transition to and from preschool.
The “Cape Cod Collaborative, Two-District Project” proposes a modified cost plan based on New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program. This was enacted after a 1998 New Jersey Supreme Court ordered that children in economically disadvantaged districts must have access to high quality early childhood programs. The Abbott Preschool Program’s court-ordered “preschool mixed delivery model” costs approximately $13,000 per pupil for a full year with extended day programs. Based on these numbers, Cape project leaders propose a phased-in model for the region, which would entail a 6.5-hour day within a 180-day school year. The approximate cost per child would be $10,500. The strategic plan proposes a three-year, phased-in timeframe with a pilot program the second year.
“It’s important to keep in mind that implementation is not immediate,” says Hall. “This isn’t happening in September. The proposed plan is exactly that—a proposal—which will require funding from a variety of sources.” Those sources include local revenue as well as federal, state, and private grants.
Joe Gilbert, special projects director for the Cape Cod Collaborative, is optimistic in the face of sometimes-bleak funding forecasts.
“You have to start somewhere,” he says. “The partnerships that have formed and the collaboration that has occurred at this stage will only have very positive implications across the board for the Cape as a whole.”
The full report is available at www.capecodcollaborative.org under “projects.”