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All but one north country school applies for Governor’s free pre-k, most can’t afford it

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CANTON - Of the 676 school districts in the state only 123 districts submitted letters of intent to apply for state-funded prekindergarten and only one district applied from Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

The governor’s $340 million allocation in the state budget for pre-K will not be paid out for over a year, pushing rural schools that already count every penny to choose between passing on the funding or paying now and waiting to be paid back at the end of the year.

Carthage Central School, a district with nearly 3,500 students, is expected to be the only district in the tri-county region to apply. Carthage Superintendent Peter J. Turner said the school currently has two half-day pre-k classes and are applying for the funding to provide a separate full-day class for 18 students. The full-day class would select the most “at-risk” students from the students applying for pre-k.

“The biggest challenge with this grant is you don’t get reimbursed very quickly,” Mr. Turner said. “We’re fortunate we have a fund balance to pay up front and wait for reimbursement and still be OK.”

Benchmark Family Services is the pre-K provider for the district. Benchmark owner Marguerite “Peg” K. Feistel is writing the application for Carthage to request $180,000, or $10,000 per student. If the application is granted the money will be used to provide 18 students with a full-day pre-k class and hire three staff members for the classroom, a masters-level instructor, a teacher’s assistant and an aide.

Ms. Feistel said the application is “very complicated,” and must have a “needs narrative” to determine how Carthage ranks compared to other schools in terms of need. The narrative must include the median income for district families, what percentage of the district population is considered low-income, and how many students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

She has also had to write a narrative outlining how the class will have more environmental education and active lessons that incorporate more play inside and outside the classroom.

“The grant really targets a certain area and they want you to demonstrate the need in your area,” Ms. Feistel said. In St. Lawrence County, Edwards-Knox School Superintendent Suzanne L. Kelly said the district’s plan for a pre-k wouldn’t have met the elaborate criteria for the grant.

“We did not meet the criteria of the application, which involved working with local agencies, museums and libraries,” Ms. Kelly said in an email.

She said the district is happy with it’s half-day program and will have the maximum number of students in the fall with 36 students.

St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES District Superintendent Thomas R. Burns said none of his component school districts have applied because they are comfortable with the current half-day programs and the funding for those programs.

He said district officials are leery of switching horses in mid-stream, especially when the pre-k programs they offer now, funded through a separate state-aid-based pool of grant money, are working well.

“During the budget season, and resulting primarily from political negotiations centered around charter schools and pre-K in New York City, monies were made available by the legislature for a new, full-day universal pre-k grant funding,” Mr. Burns said.

He said all of the school districts in the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES region currently utilize the existing allocational pre-K grants. These grants cover the costs, although not completely, of half-day prekindergarten programs that serve as a bridge to full-day kindergarten, he said.

Mr. Burns said there is no disputing the evidence that quality pre-k programs are beneficial to children as they transition into public school life and can have a positive impact on development into adulthood. Because of that, he said within his BOCES network, school superintendents and teachers have worked hard to build the programs they now have in place, with an emphasis on including as many children in their pre-k classrooms as possible.

“Trying to switch to the new program, which would require a change from half-day to full-day, and no guarantee of receiving funds mostly allocated to NYC, seemed to make little sense to our districts,” Mr. Burns said. “They will continue to use the Allocational grants to give as many 3- and 4-year-olds throughout the region a quality preschool experience.”

Larry Robinson, Steve Virkler and Elizabeth Lyons contributed to this story

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