Montclair public schools may soon offer prekindergarten, part of a statewide initiative to provide pre-K to all New Jersey families by 2030, but many details of the program, including when it will begin, remain unknown.

The township’s schools have not hosted their own pre-K program since the late 1990s, when budget restraints put preschool on the chopping block, according to Jane Susswein, former Montclair Board of Education member, Montclair teacher and PTA Council president.

At a July 7 Board of Education meeting, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced the district was eligible for pre-K grant funding and would be submitting an application for it.

“We’re excited about this, and this is significant,” Ponds said. 

A team from the district had already signed up for technical assistance workshops, he said. 

"As we are just in the beginning stages of applying and finishing technical assistance training, it is too soon to provide additional details," Ponds told Montclair Local Thursday. "We will be happy to report out to the Board and the news media in September."

On July 12, Ponds and other administrators attended a state training session for the program, Priscilla Church, board vice president, said. 

“Dr. Ponds worked on this and successfully brought to fruition what has been a desire in this community for decades,” Church told Montclair Local. “It will enable us to ensure equity for those who would benefit most from this proven head start and provide needed support for all our families across the district.”

She referred additional questions about the program to Ponds.

Pre-K is not required for students to enter kindergarten in the Montclair school district. But the district’s website links to several preschool options in Montclair and points to data showing that students who are part of high-quality pre-K programs are less likely to repeat a grade or require remedial education and are more likely to graduate.

When the district cut pre-K in the 1990s, Susswein said, “every single board meeting was filled with thunderous cries from parents to keep the preschool.”

The school district was losing state aid, schools needed the classrooms used by pre-K for other grade levels, and taxpayers didn’t want to pay for an optional program, board members said at the time, according to a Nov. 20, 1996, New York Times article.

The Montclair district had been struggling for years to pay for the pre-K program, but in 1996 the Board of Education promised to keep the program running for at least another year while the community explored alternatives, such as charging tuition, according to the article. 

Several community members, including Susswein, got together to come up with a plan, she said. After several months of meetings, they had a solution — multiple pre-K sites across town in buildings such as the old firehouse near Glenfield Middle School. 

The group presented the plan to the Township Council, but the council then created its own committee, Susswein said. 

Ultimately a plan emerged — the Board of Education gave property for a pre-K facility, at 49 Orange Road, and the township loaned funds for construction. In September 1998, the Montclair Community Pre-K opened its doors. 

Ever since, Montclair Community Pre-K has served as the de facto public preschool in town. Open to all families in the township, the Pre-K has never turned away a family for financial reasons, according to its website. The program, which follows the Montclair school district’s calendar, has an enrollment of 224 students ages 3 to 5.

Approximately 35% of enrolled families have received some level of tuition assistance on a sliding-scale based on household income, the website says. 

On Tuesday, July 19, Susswein, a member of the Pre-K’s board of trustees, and other Pre-K representatives met with Ponds as part of the “information gathering stage,” she said.

“Nothing has been set in stone,” she said Tuesday morning before the meeting. 

The push for universal pre-K comes at a time when Montclair, along with districts nationwide, are seeing a decline in enrollment. 

An Aug. 16, 2021, report showed overall district enrollment for the 2021-22 school year to be 6,036. The last time enrollment dipped lower than that level, according to district reports, was in 1999, when 6,016 students were enrolled. 

And the kindergarten enrollment figure from August 2021, 387, was 21% lower than the 484 in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic sent students home for remote learning for more than a year. 

The lower enrollments have also affected staffing. As the smaller populations matriculate, there may be room for decreases in staff, Ponds said at a May 9 board meeting where he also announced the district would be cutting 26 nontenured staff members as well as an undisclosed number of paraprofessionals. 

A week later, 83 nonrenewal notices were issued to 35 teachers and 48 paraprofessionals. As of July 11, 21 teachers and 23 paraprofessionals had been rehired.

In September 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that the state would commit to providing universal pre-K to all families across the state over the next several years. At the time, he  announced 19 districts across 11 counties would split $17.5 million in funding to start or expand existing preschool programs. 

Murphy said the process to institute universal pre-K would begin with a “strategic plan” created over the next year that would set a path to full-day preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds by the end of the decade, according to reporting by NJ Spotlight News

“It would be 2030 the latest,” he said. “I hope sooner than that … Resources will be what we need to get our arms around.”

The administration has not yet released the strategic plan.