The Montclair school district received a $970,555 grant Thursday to establish a free preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds, as part of the state Department of Education’s Preschool Expansion Aid. 

Montclair was one of 27 districts in the state to receive funding in the latest round of the Preschool Expansion Aid, according to a Thursday press release from New Jersey Department of Education. Montclair was one of three Essex County districts to receive money — Nutley received $1,228,170 and West Orange $1,894,569. 

“There's a mountain of evidence showing preschool benefits students for the rest of their lives,” schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local Thursday. “Today, working with community partners, we are on our way to establishing universal Pre-K — so that every child in Montclair gets the preparation they need for success later on in school and life."

The over $26 million ensures that nearly 2,150 additional 3- and 4-year-old children will have access to a preschool classroom, the press release says. 

“When we invest in preschool education, we also invest in our youth and in the future success of the State of New Jersey for decades to come,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in the release. “Today’s announcement is another step toward universal preschool and a brighter future for New Jersey’s youngest learners.”

In anticipation of being awarded the state preschool aid, the Montclair district shared information and pre-applications last week for those interested in enrolling 3- and 4-year-olds in free preschool.

With the receipt of the state aid, the district will open a full-day program for 60 preschool students on Oct. 3, free to Montclair residents, according to information posted on the district website. Selection will be made by lottery, and all six classrooms will be taught by certified and licensed teachers, the website says. 

The lottery applications, linked on the district website, must be submitted by Sept. 15, a change from the previous deadline Sept. 14. Children who will be 3 or 4 on or before Oct. 1 are eligible for the program. 

On Friday, the district announced there will be in-person lottery sign-ups at Central Office, located at 22 Valley Road, on Tuesday, Sept. 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p..m. and Thursday, Sept. 15 from noon to 2 p.m.

Families will then be notified of their lottery status on or before Sept. 21, a change from the previous notification date, Sept. 16.

Each lottery entry will be assigned a number and numbers will be randomly selected for the available openings. 

Any students already in the tuition-based preschool program will be automatically enrolled in the new program. Ponds has not yet responded to an email sent Sept. 2 asking how many spots will be available for new students in the free program once the existing students are accounted for. 

In a Thursday press release, Mayor Sean Spiller said he was “thrilled” about the aid.

“This funding is a culmination of hard work by advocates, and represents a commitment from the Murphy administration to invest in our next generation,” Spiller said in the release. “Providing early childhood education is one of the most meaningful steps we can take to ensure the very best start for our youngest learners.”

Four classrooms will open in district schools — two at the Developmental Learning Center and two at Nishuane Elementary School. One class will open at the Montclair Community Pre-K and another at the Geyer Family YMCA.

The preschool will run for six hours each day with start and end times dependent on placement locations, the website says. The classrooms will be “inclusive of students with varied abilities, interests, needs and learning styles.”

District staff will be attending community events in the coming weeks to “ensure equitable access to the application,” the website says.