Borough School District Seeks Pre-K Funds

The Matanuska-Susitna School District’s pre-school program is in jeopardy. “Widening the Net” brings pre-kindergarten education into selected district schools, but school funding reductions may force the district to shut down the innovative program in the fall.

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School district officials vow to continue the program on a reduced basis, if a state grant does not come through in time.

The merits of pre-school education are obvious to teachers of young children.

Students who attend high quality pre-school are more likely to succeed not only in school but to graduate from high school,” Kelly McBride, one of the teachers who spoke up at a recent Mat Su Borough Assembly meeting, said.

But next day’s news headlines trumpeted how the Assembly shot down a move to give $350,000 in Borough funds to its school district to help continue its public pre-school program. Mat-Su School Superintendent Deena Paramo says keeping “Widening the Net” in the seven communities it has been serving now depends on whether or not the district wins a state grant.

“If we don’t receive those funds, then we won’t continue them,” Paramo said. “Because there is not a funding stream if those funds don’t come through.”

Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbis says that the private sector can fill the need for pre-school. But many parents in the Borough can’t afford to pay for pre-K and having the school district provide it is a boon to hard working couples. The issue at hand is not about the merits of formal education programs for four year olds, but, “who is going to pay for them?” Paramo says, ultimately, the public will, one way or another.

“We want kids to have the best advantage they can have when they get to kindergarten. If they don’t have the skills needed, they are coming to the school district anyway,” Paramo said. “And the school district and all of those public funds will pay for that child in the end if they are behind or on grade level either for remediation or not. And so, to me, I look at it as, what is the biggest impact we can give in student learning for the most effective rate, and certainly, pre-school has a place in there.”

Paul Sugar, who heads the state department of education’s pre-K program, says there is $2 million in this year’s education budget to fund pre-K programs within school districts. Sugar says the state encourages district’s which apply for the funds to partner with private pre-schools.

“We were looking at ways to expand services to more folks, and if possible and to build partnerships so that we would see the strengths of other programs being infused in to school districts, and the strengths that the district offers being infused into the other works of the partners,” Sugar said.

Paramo says that Mat-Su’s school district partners with Palmer’s Head Start program.

Last year, the state money helped eight school districts in Alaska fund pre-K programs. Sugar says state money pays for between two and three hundred students enrolled in public pre-schools each year. This is the sixth year that state money has been available for such programs.

The Mat-Su program for the seven pre-K’s cost $650,000 this past school year, according to Lucy Hope, the district’s student support services director.

The Mat-Su’s pre-school program has just finished its second year. But that is time enough for the now kindergarteners and first graders to be monitored for their progress, according to Hope.

“We measure all of our kindergarteners at the beginning of kindergarten in their literacy skills, and then we measure actually, all children throughout the school year,” Hope said. “And we have seen not only the children who have attended Widening the Net come in with better skills in literacy, but their learning accelerate through the end of kindergarten at a greater rate than the rest of our kids.”

Paramo says that Mat-Su’s school board has asked her to find pre-school money outside of the base student allocation, and that she is examining all available sources to continue the program. Paramo says the school district’s pre-school plan has always been scalable to fit whatever money is available, even if it is a one-time grant.

“And some people think, well that’s kind of a waste of money, you’ll have it for a couple of years, but then you won’t, but we affected 150 kids positively, that we could have, and that’s why we built programs that are scalable,” Paramo said. “We try, and then, we may have to tell some families that we can’t do it.”

She says, unless more money is found, only Talkeetna’s pre-K will open in the fall.