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Why districts that want pre-K don't apply for NY state grants

Sarah Harris
Canton Elementary School principal Joe McDonough plays with silly sand in the pre-K classroom.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said it again and again, universal pre-kindergarten is a big priority. Last year, the legislature approved a $340 million program to increase public, full-day pre-K access. But only one school district in the North Country received the grant for pre-K funding.

Canton Elementary School principal Joe McDonough says pre-K isn’t just fun. It’s essential for kids’ development.

"People come to school even at the ripe old age of four with a variety of experiences and levels of knowledge and skills," McDonough said. 

Some kids might know the alphabet or shapes. Some kids don’t. McDonough says that pre-K helps to "bridge that gap in student experience so that everyone's [closer] to a level playing field."

Elizabeth-Lewis is one of the seven North County districts that does not have a public pre-K program. Schools are not required to offer pre-K or kindergarten, but most schools in the North Country do offer it.

The problem -- the money set aside for pre-K last year is distributed through competitive, reimbursement grants.

Scott Osborne, superintendent of Elizabethtown, said small rural districts that have had to make major budget cuts over the last few years cannot front the cash.

"There's always the question, [is] that actually going to come through, are we going to receive the full funding back?" Osborne said.

Lake Placid Superintendent Roger Catania said his district was ready to take the risk.

"It's an act of faith to commit to a program that we haven't budgeted for," he said.

A year ago, there was no public pre-K in Lake Placid.

The local Catholic school St. Agnes had a private program. After applying and receiving the grant, public universal pre-K is now held at the private school campus.

"We've spent the year saying I can't wait until this class gets to kindergarten," said Catherine Bemis, principal of St. Agnes. "Because the students are ready in so many more ways."

The second problem -- the state said there is money for another four years. Catania said he is waiting on confirmation. St. Agnes has not been reimbursed for the first year yet.

Osborne said if the state is serious about early childhood education, pre-K funding would not come through a competitive grant.

"If we really want to solve the problem, and we really want to have equity, then fully fund it for everybody," he said.

Four years old, he says, is too early to get left behind.

Sarah is a correspondent for North Country Public Radio, based in Canton, N.Y.