Two very different towns are tasked with the same goal: expand the preschool program in their district. Berkeley Township and Absecon are two of 31 towns to receive funding from Gov. Murphy’s first round of Preschool Education Expansion Aid, or PEEA. Berkeley got the highest amount at $2.2 million; Absecon, the lowest at approximately $189,000.
“For us, it changed our program dramatically because a couple years ago we only had half-day tuition programs and half-day special education programs,” said Amy Coppinger, supervisor of the Berkeley preschool program.
The state aid allowed Berkeley to grow from four full-day and two half-day classes to 18 full-day pre-K classes serving more than 200 students. By next year, it’ll be 27 classes, and they’ll continue expanding until they reach the more than 400 eligible 4 year olds in the district.
“There’s a huge educational impact. What we’re doing, essentially, is closing the achievement gap for students that are able to come to school at 4 years old that maybe wouldn’t have had that opportunity,” she said.
Absecon first received state aid in 2015 to launch a pre-K program for its low-income students. But the PEEA grant isn’t tied to income, allowing the school to expand until it reaches all 90 eligible students in the district. It’s halfway there now with three classes and 45 students.
Absecon Superintendent Dan Dooley says today’s students need this foundation.
“Students are expected to read and write halfway through kindergarten. We need them to interact with their classmates and their teachers and follow rules and regulations and yet have fun through play,” Dooley said.
For kids to thrive in kindergarten, the social and emotional development is critical, according to Absecon kindergarten teacher Valerie Barron.
“If they don’t have that experience of interacting with the other kids, then we’re starting from the beginning, teaching them how do you share with your friends, how do you take turns, how do we talk to our friends. How do we solve our problems? And that’s the beginning. They need those skills to then learn,” Barron said.
“By the end of third grade, if students are not on level, it is harder for them to be remediated. So, this early intervention piece of giving students everything that they need from the start so they never fall behind is really an important piece,” Dooley said.
“One of the things the Department of Education has stated over and over again is that for every dollar we invest in early childhood, it actually saves seven dollars in the long run,” said Coppinger.
It’s not clear whether the funds will be guaranteed in the years to come, although it does seem to be a commitment from the Murphy administration. These districts are hopeful that it will, as they say it’s making a world of difference for their youngest students.