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Jan 26, 2018 3:09 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Pre-K Program Has Been A Gift For East Quogue Families

Erik Vuik, 4, with his mother, Karolina Vuik, at the Love of Learning Children's Center in Quogue. CAILIN RILEY
Jan 30, 2018 2:53 PM

Karolina Vuik wasn’t overly concerned when she noticed that her son, Erik, was a bit slower to develop speech than his older siblings. He is her third child, and the experience that comes with more than a decade of being a mother had softened the edges of her parental anxiety, as often happens with parents with multiple children.Shortly after enrolling him in prekindergarten five days a week at the Love of Learning Children’s Center in Quogue in the fall, Ms. Vuik, who lives in East Quogue, heard from her son’s teachers that a speech evaluation was probably a good idea. Erik qualified for speech therapy, paid for by Suffolk County, and is now thriving, both academically and socially, according to his mother.

If it wasn’t for a change made in East Quogue last year, Erik, now 4, would not be enrolled in speech therapy—and possibly would not even be attending school.

Prekindergarten was available to Ms. Vuik, and other East Quogue parents, for the first time because of a special infusion of state money. And East Quogue, along with districts in a similar position across the state, are now left waiting, hoping that Albany will one day make that funding available once more.

Playing Catch-Up

Ms. Vuik is a massage therapist by trade, while her husband, Marien, is a bus driver for the East Hampton School District. Due to the nature of her job, Ms. Vuik said she is busiest during the summer, and because she has more free time during the offseason to care for her youngest son, she found it hard to justify spending money to send him to pre-K. She has two older children, ages 8 and 12, who are now enrolled in school full-time; they did attend pre-K when they were younger, although not every day.

Unlike most nearby school districts, East Quogue has never had a universal pre-K program. In comparison, 4-year-olds in Quogue have long had access to such a program, and the majority of preschool-age children in nearby Westhampton Beach, Remsenburg and Hampton Bays qualify for half-day pre-K, five days per week, through a lottery program funded by the state.

East Quogue parents have been left with an increasingly tough choice: keep their children out of school until kindergarten, or pay full price to send them to pre-K, which typically costs more than $500 monthly for five half-day sessions per week.

An effort to change that, several years in the making, finally paid off in late 2016. The East Quogue School District was able to fund a pre-K program with money from Albany that came in the form of “bullet aid”—a direct shot of money earmarked for a particular purpose that comes outside of the typical school aid package each year.

That financial shot allowed Ms. Vuik and several other parents to send their children to pre-K five mornings a week, free of charge. With the $60,000 of state aid—secured through the efforts of State Senator Kenneth LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele—East Quogue set up a lottery system, which allowed 24 of the 30 applicants to send their children to their choice of three local preschools: Love of Learning in Quogue, Bright Beginnings in Westhampton Beach, or Sunshine Academy in Westhampton.

According to East Quogue Superintendent Robert Long, his district was a victim of “bad luck” about a decade ago. Mr. Long, who was principal at the time, said that for reasons that are unclear to him, East Quogue’s Board of Education chose not to take advantage of state aid for universal pre-K when that funding was available.

And when district officials finally decided they wanted to make pre-K a priority and create a program, school officials discovered that the state had cut off its funding for new programs that year, during the height of the financial crisis.

“If I had a crystal ball, I would have tried to get the program started earlier,” Mr. Long said.

East Quogue has asked for $100,000 this year for the program, in anticipation of more applicants next school year, and hopes to offer free pre-K to everyone who applies. The school is also looking to add other preschool partners, to provide parents with more options and make sure there is enough room to accommodate all applicants.

In a recent interview, Mr. Long said he was “cautiously optimistic” that his district would be able to offer the same program again this year, although he was still unsure if the state would grant the full $100,000 requested.

Mr. Thiele—who said he thinks that every district should have a universal pre-K program—said he is confident that the money would be there for East Quogue to continue its program, though such funding cannot be finalized until the spring.

Regardless of how the finances shake out, the program is providing relief for many East Quogue families, in an era when research increasingly proves the wide-ranging and long-lasting benefits of pre-K education, and children are expected to enter kindergarten with more skills than even just a decade ago.

The New First Grade

Mary Post is the owner and director of the Love of Learning Children’s Center in Quogue, which she has run for more than 20 years. She educated several East Quogue children as part of the district’s program this year, and has participated in the programs offered by Westhampton and Remsenburg as well.

From a business standpoint, Ms. Post is paid significantly less through the pre-K funding from the schools—around $270 per month—than she is by families who pay the school’s regular tuition rates out of pocket, or $530 per month.

Still, she said, it’s worth it, considering the value of pre-K education.

“Many times I have read that 90 percent of your lifelong learning happens before the age of 5,” she said. “All of your language skills form, your ability to socialize, to reason, and to play develop then. To have access to an enriched environment that encourages growth is important to every child.”

Dawn Orban, who runs Bright Beginnings out of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Westhampton Beach, stressed that the value of pre-K cannot be overstated, and pointed out that most of the children enrolled in her program—she refers to them as “friends” instead of students—attend full-day sessions, because their parents feel it’s necessary to prepare them for kindergarten.

“Kindergarten is what first grade used to be,” Ms. Orban said, adding that participation in a pre-K program is also vital for children who might need extra help or services.

She also noted that of the 175 children enrolled in her school, roughly 25 are currently receiving speech therapy, occupational therapy or other special instruction. “The most important piece of early education is finding the kids that need intervention and getting it for them before they hit kindergarten,” she said. “It’s so wonderful when a friend leaves here and we know they’re going to a regular classroom and will be on track with their peers.”

At Love of Learning, Ms. Vuik has been impressed with the progress her son has made, and she even occasionally pays for him to stay for one or two afternoon sessions per week.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” she said of the program. “He loves it, and I added some afternoons, because, socially, hanging out with kids his age is so much better for him.”

Ms. Vuik said discovering that Erik needed speech therapy and getting him into a program before starting kindergarten was an unexpected benefit. “I wouldn’t have done anything about it had I not put him in school,” she said.

Parents have different views about how often their children should attend pre-K, and finances play a huge role.

Joseph Sanicola, an East Quogue father of three who is a fourth grade teacher in the East Hampton School District, said he and his wife, Elizabeth, who works in Southampton, have been committed to sending their children to full-day pre-K; they paid for their oldest daughter, Lena, to attend Bright Beginnings and are doing the same now for their younger daughter, Maggie.

But they said the savings of having five mornings paid for by the state has made a big difference, allowing them to send their 2-year-old son, Augie, to the same school several days per week to get a jump-start on his education.

As an elementary school teacher, Mr. Sanicola said he sees the impact of pre-K education—and the lack of it—firsthand.

“You can look at a student and know who’s had early intervention, based on where they are and the lack of gaps,” he said. “And with the growth of the [English as a Second Language] population, sometimes pre-K provides the only bit of English they’re exposed to throughout the day—and that alone could transition them out of services a year earlier.”

Looking Ahead

Mr. Long and members of his district’s School Board were thrilled to offer a state-funded pre-K program this year, and are excited about the possibility of offering it again in the fall. Still, they also acknowledge that the bullet aid is only a temporary fix—one that is at the mercy of the state budget every year, and could vanish at any time.

While East Quogue is in a more secure financial footing than it has been in a long time, transferring money to pre-K funding isn’t simple. Mr. Long said he does not anticipate that his board members would agree to use any money from the district’s reserve fund—which currently stands at around $2 million and exceeds the state guidelines—for future pre-K funding. He also noted that additional space for pre-K classrooms was not drawn into the plans for a proposed $8.4 million school expansion that district residents will vote on this March.

He did say, however, that officials are investigating the possibility of one day housing their pre-K program within the walls of their Central Avenue school.

“We’re taking a cautious approach, and there are no concrete plans as of now,” Mr. Long said, reiterating that he’s pleased with the current relationship with the three local preschools now partnering with his district.

“This program is a priority for the Board of Education,” he continued. “We’re going to take a look at our own general budget as well, for ways to support [universal pre-K].”

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