ORLEANS - Heading into last month's special town meeting, select board members anticipated that one article in particular might stir up some discussion in the Nauset Regional Middle School Auditorium.
The Orleans School Committee's request for $495,000 to fund a universal pre-kindergarten program in town was expected to draw some back and forth, especially given the cost, which was to be funded through a Proposition 2½ override.
But when the time to vote came, the article passed without a word. Funding for the program also passed a week later at the special town election.
"I was so pleased for the families of Orleans," said Gail Briere, who chairs the school committee. "We needed to help out our young families, and there's nothing available that supports them."
Town Administrator John Kelly, who will administer the program for the town, said letters would be sent out Nov. 18 to area pre-kindergarten agencies, both in Orleans and neighboring towns, seeking their interest in participating in the program, which he said is expected to go live Dec. 1.
The Nauset Public Schools runs an integrated preschool program which offers services for two and a half hours Monday through Thursday. But that program isn't open to all students, and those who participate are chosen by a lottery system.
"Unfortunately that capacity is limited," Briere said. "The primary goal of the integrated program is to provide for the special education program."
Briere said the school committee, with the support of the Orleans Finance Committee, moved forward with efforts to secure funding for a town-wide program that is expected to support 66 3- and 4-year-olds in the community.
"I think the pandemic really put things in a spotlight for me that many people had to stop working because their children were not in school," Briere said. "I just thought it was such a shame that children were missing out on this opportunity to be part of a school community, and all of the social and emotional skills that come with that."
The new program will offer up to $5,000 in pre-kindergarten funding for children who are 3 years old as of Aug. 31 of that school year. Families with children who are 4 years old as of the same date can qualify for up to $10,000 in funding.
"I know some cases where parents have their children in preschool two mornings a week, because that's all that they can afford," Briere said. "This creates an opportunity to expand those hours."
Parents must find an agency with which to place their child, after which they can fill out an application with the town to qualify for the funds. If approved, the agency will bill the town for services, which will be paid through the approved pre-k funding.
In order to qualify for the funds, children must be Orleans residents and be of the specified age. A birth certificate for each child must be provided along with the application.
Applications were made available on the town's website at the end of last week, Kelly said.
The Orleans program, which Kelly said would need to be refunded annually through an article at the annual town meeting, was modeled after one established in Eastham last year. Members of the school and finance committees met with Eastham Town Administrator Jacqueline Beebe earlier this year to iron out the details of how the program would work.
There are 40 children serviced through the Eastham program, which Beebe said has so far been "tremendously successful."
"We're all in the same boat in the Lower and Outer Cape, we're losing families," she said. "We started to think about what we could do to support families. This plan was sort of our way of addressing both an economic development issue, because we can give a secure stream of funding to childcare providers, and to provide a service that really provides young families the ability to get back into the workforce."
In addition to helping families, Briere said the new program will also have economic benefits for Orleans and neighboring communities by driving services to area preschools.
"We're not trying to put them out of business. Part of what we're trying to do is support parents by expanding those opportunities and to support our local businesses," she said.
Efforts were made ahead of the special town meeting to educate voters about the program and how it will work. Information, including a list of frequently asked questions, is posted on the town website. Briere also explained the program during a citizens forum held in advance of the meeting, while parents also volunteered the night of the meeting by handing out information sheets to voters.
For Briere, the support shown for the program in Orleans wasn't surprising.
"This community has always supported education," she said. "So if you look at this as an extension of education going down to 3-year-olds, it's not surprising that the majority of people felt this way."
Email Ryan Bray at email@example.com
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