A month after Montclair began offering free preschool to 64 students, the school district announced plans to expand the program throughout this school year, and to double its size next year.

The district in addition plans to offer before- and after-care services at all preschool locations next year, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at a Nov. 14 school board meeting. There was not enough time to establish that care this school year, he said.

The district also will be reconsidering its lottery process for preschool slots, adding consideration of family income and whether a student is classified as an English language learner.

It’s all part of the district’s goal to provide universal preschool within five years.

Free preschool began in Montclair on Oct. 3, after the district received a $970,555 grant to establish such a program for 3- and 4-year-olds as part of the state Department of Education’s Preschool Expansion Aid program.

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

The district learned on Sept. 8 that Montclair would receive the money. Outreach to families had begun in late August in anticipation of the aid and continued until Sept. 15, when lottery entries were due. Children who were 3 or 4 on or before Oct. 1 were eligible for the program. Race, ethnicity and economic background were not factored into the lottery. 

During the outreach period, the district worked to set up classrooms for the incoming students and to hire staff, Ponds said. The district ordered furniture, painted classrooms, replaced floors, held professional development sessions and more. 

There were 220 lottery entries for the 64 slots. 

The program’s students are divided among six classrooms in four different locations — two at the Developmental Learning Center, two at Nishuane School, one at the Montclair Community Pre-K and one at the Geyer Family YMCA.

The district is looking to expand the free program quickly. Universal preschool was defined by the state in 2008 as reaching 90% of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds.

The goal for the 2022-2023 school year is to have 90 students, 15 in each classroom. The district is currently moving through its list of families pulled during the lottery process, asking if they are still interested in a spot. Spots are also being held for students in special education — 25 students are being assessed for Individualized Education Plan needs. 

The proposed plan for the 2023-2024 school year, which is pending Department of Education approval, includes adding classrooms and increasing collaboration with partnership organizations, Ponds said. The district plans to begin working with the Montclair Child Development Center and the Neighborhood Childcare Center, in addition to its existing partnerships, he said. 

The plan for next school year doubles the number of existing classrooms, for a total of 12 classrooms at six locations — two at the Developmental Learning Center, two at Montclair Child Development Center, two at Nishuane School, two at the Montclair Community Pre-K, one at the Neighborhood Childcare Center and three at the Geyer Family YMCA.

The district also intends to change the way it conducts its lottery for the free preschool program. 

“One of the major things we discussed before moving into next year was: Are we getting quality representation from different perspectives and races and ethnicities and cultures, and with respect to our ELL population?” Ponds said. 

The superintendent said that he had asked the district’s attorney if the district could implement a formula that factors in those classifications and that the attorney had said yes. 

“We want to make sure it's representative of our community,” Ponds said. “One of the things we want to be explicit about is that moving forward, what we're going to do is use those data points to make sure we have slots for that.”

The demographics of the preschool students “reflect the district’s enrollment,” David Cantor, the executive director of communications and community engagement, said last week. He declined to share the specific demographic breakdown. 

The populations that the district plans to factor in next school year are the populations that most need support before entering kindergarten, board member Eric Scherzer said at the Nov. 14 school board meeting. 

“With a lottery process, there are people who have the information but don't apply, they don't get their applications in,” Scherzer said. “The lottery pool is different than the general population of the community. So it has to be something that we are careful about and observant about.”

Ponds agreed, saying studies show that free preschool helps families and increases equity in the district. 

“It's very impactful for families who say they can't afford a full day of Pre-K,” he said. “Now they have a place to go, a place that's going to be structured, a place that’s going to have high-quality instruction, a place that’s going to have a curriculum that's respected and research-based.”  

Partnering with the preschool providers in the community will also work to address demographic concerns, as those providers serve diverse populations, board President Latifah Jannah said. 

Board member Crystal Hopkins asked Ponds to provide additional information about the demographics of the program and the plan to expand over the next five years, so that board members could better communicate about the program to the public. 

While the continued growth over the years will come with challenges, the district does not plan to tackle its preschool expansion alone. 

The district is putting together an early childhood advisory council, a group of more than 20 stakeholders — both community members and district staff — to help guide the preschool program, Ponds said at the Nov. 14 meeting. The group will oversee the program’s growth to meet the 90% universal enrollment, assist in creating support for the transition from preschool to kindergarten and participate in the assessment of needs and resources for the program.

A majority of the council members have already been assembled, with only three or four spots left to fill, Ponds said.

The state Department of Education has also assigned an early childhood liaison to assist the district during the process. 

Staff will continue to participate in professional development, Ponds said.

At the Nov. 14 meeting, the superintendent outlined pending tasks for the preschool program. The district must complete enrollment for the pending spots, in its effort to bump enrollment to 90, he said. 

The district will approve a preschool instruction coach consultant through Montclair State University to work with each teacher to ensure the district curriculum is being executed correctly, and will hire a preschool community parent involvement specialist, responsible for establishing and meeting regularly with the early childhood advisory council. 

Lastly, the district will establish its enrollment process for the 2023-2024 school year.

In continuing to plan for the growth of the program, the district hopes to expand upon partnerships with community providers and look for spaces in the schools that could be used for the young students, Ponds said. The district will also help to connect interested preschool providers with certification programs, required to teach the district’s preschool classes, he said.