Photo: Piqsels

Facilities, staffing, transportation, and increased hours will all be needed if Amherst is to expand early childhood education slots. That was the message of a report commissioned jointly by the School District and the Town of Amherst, published on December 11th. 

The “Preschool Exploration Project” was undertaken by Kristen Hayes Consulting to explore expansion of early childhood (birth to five years old) programming in Amherst, in order to address the gap in kindergarten readiness. Hayes was due to present her work to the Amherst School Committee on December 18th but it was postponed to January 21st.

While assessment of the quality of the current preschool programming at Crocker Farm was explicitly not part of the study, interviews of preschool and kindergarten staff, as well as the Program Director at Reach early intervention services, emphasized that the service hours of the current preschool program do not meet the needs of children and families. 

The Crocker Farm preschool program was developed to ensure that children aged three to five years with disabilities have a free and appropriate public education. It services both children with special education needs and general education needs in an integrated setting. According to the report, it runs for 2.5 to 3.5 hours each day and is under-enrolled (48 of 75 slots filled in 2018-2019), which Hayes attributes partly to the limited hours. Hayes wrote, “research suggests that the part-day model does not generally meet the needs of higher-risk populations”, and added that across the country, many districts and nonprofits have reduced the number of children served in order to serve them for a greater duration (planned contact hours) to align with the research.

Preschool staff interviewed for the study, reported they need more support to address trauma and the social/emotional needs of children and that there is inadequate space for children to engage in therapy or have a quiet, calming space. The school district’s Director of Student and Family Engagement, Marta Guevara, articulated multiple concerns with the current preschool location at Crocker Farm including the limited or non-accessible parking for families.

Some in the community have noted that if the existing preschool were to be relocated, it would free up five classrooms at Crocker Farm that could accommodate at least 100 K-6 students. In the event of a consolidation of the three elementary schools into two buildings, approximately 150 students would need to be relocated to either Crocker Farm or the Middle School. Consolidation could create an opportunity to use the vacated elementary school building to house a larger early childhood education facility.

Hayes proposed three potential models for expanding access, two of which she suggested could be appropriate for Amherst, in partnership with the local Head Start/Early Head Start grantee, Community Action Pioneer Valley (CAPV). Head Start is a federal program that promotes school readiness in children from birth to age five from low-income families. The annual income threshold for Head Start eligibility for a household of four is $25,750 (federal poverty guidelines). 

The first model Hayes proposed (“Model 1”) for expanding preschool slots would require the district to provide classroom space and a teacher, while Head Start would provide a classroom teacher and a family engagement staffer. Hayes noted however, that the district’s current part-day preschool model would pose a significant barrier for expansion as the hours would not align with federal funding requirements. Head Start requires a minimum of 1,020 hours per year which equates to roughly 6 hours per day, 5 days per week for the school year. 

The other option (“Model 3”) could create up to 16 slots for infants and toddlers. It would require the school district to provide classroom space and be responsible for hiring and supervising the teachers, while Early Head Start would provide the family support and health services. Hours would likely have to meet the federal Early Head Start minimum of 1,380 per year, which equates to about 8 hours per day, five days per week for the school year.

According to the report, there are an estimated 192 children under five years old currently living in poverty in Amherst, with about 60% with both parents working. Of the 192, 127 are aged 0-3, with only 12.3% (16 kids) enrolled in a federally-funded Early Head Start program. Of the 77 children in the 3-5 age bracket, 44% (34 kids) are in a Head Start program. CAPV enrollment staff reported that the Early Head Start (0-3yrs) waitlist is always greater than the Head Start (3-5yrs) waitlist. The CAPV Director stated that she would be more interested in expanding Early Head Start slots in Amherst, given the documented need for infant and toddler services. Guevara stated that ideally, her program would offer child care for children from birth to age 3, and that it would feed into the preschool program.

Changes to preschool programming by the school district in 2018 included a decrease from a five-day week to a four-day week, an increase in special education slots from 35 to 42, and a reduction in general education slots from 40 to 32. In addition, the preschool at the High School, which had offered a full-day tuition-based program for a small number of children, was closed to make room for the Summit Academy alternative high school. 

The previous elementary school building project that failed to proceed in 2016 had included physical space for additional preschool classrooms but no operational funding source for staffing had been identified at that time. In October 2018, when discussing the inclusion of preschool classrooms in a potential new school building at Fort River, Superintendent Michael Morris told the Feasibility Study Committee that he does not have an operational funding source to fund the staffing of additional preschool classrooms.

It is likely that the same challenge will exist for the Head Start partnership proposals outlined in Hayes’ report. For each of the two potential models, the Amherst school district and Town would need to identify funding for staffing and transportation and for significantly increasing service hours, as well as identify and potentially renovate facilities in which to house early childhood programming. 

Hayes noted that there are funds remaining on her contract that could be allocated for further study, including (1) a facilities assessment to determine the feasibility of locating infant/toddler/preschool classrooms on district grounds; and (2) an assessment of the current program outcomes and potential impacts of reducing the number of children who are currently enrolled in the district’s preschool classrooms in favor of expanding the hours of care for children.

As noted, Hayes is scheduled to present her findings to the School Committee at their meeting on January 21st. The 24-page report can be found in the meeting packet from the December 18th meeting.

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  1. It’s good to have hard numbers on this important issue but didn’t we already know this?

  2. Hi Janet. We knew the limited hours of the preschool at Crocker Farm did not meet the needs of working families, and we knew there were families living in poverty whose five year olds were arriving at kindergarten without preschool experience.
    What was news to me was that offering childcare for birth to three year olds was a higher priority for some than increasing preschool access, and that the Crocker Farm location is less than ideal as a site for meeting the needs of children with disabilities and trauma.

    The challenge facing the district leadership, now that they have this report, will be finding the funding to pay for staffing of either infant/toddler childcare or additional preschool, and identifying where to locate programming.

  3. Thanks to Toni Cunningham for this comprehensive report on a vitally important issue. I have many thoughts about this – too many for this comment. I have not been aware of recent developments in the Amherst schools, but when I came to Amherst in 1970 as principal of Mark’s Meadow the need to provide full-day kindergarten led to an experimental program at my school to develop guidelines for it. Now we are talking about babies, infants and toddlers, as we should be. But we should be thinking clearly about what kinds of needs we are supporting for this young population. Fifty years ago the Head Start emphasis was on academic preparation and I think this was a great mistake. Reading and writing can wait; talking, engaging in conversation, asking questions and developing imagination should be the focuses of programs for our youngest children. This may be the case now, as thinking about preschool programs has certainly been informed by new approaches to child development, but questions of facilities, staffing and funding should be based on a clear understanding of the programmatic vision.

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