NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera, Mayor Harry Rilling and state Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) gathered Tuesday with other local legislators and city officials at the Fox Run Elementary School to applaud a legislative act signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy last week establishing three new major early childhood initiatives.
The initiatives will create more than 1,000 new School Readiness Program slots, create the Connecticut Smart Start program, which will provide grants to qualified municipalities for preschool needs, and create an agency to consolidate the state’s preschool program administration.
“Access to quality pre-K programs is an important part of our commitment to closing the achievement gap,” Rivera said in a prepared statement. “We know that children who enter kindergarten with both social and essential academic skills are better prepared to succeed in school, and that quality pre-K programs help to develop those skills. We very much welcome the state’s new initiatives in this area.”
Rilling, who discussed a need for such a focused program in early April, said he is “excited” to see the state focus on preschool education. “Children who do not have that kind of opportunity are too often left behind by their more fortunate peers,” Rilling said. “We owe it to every child to give them a strong start in school.”
Democratic lawmakers made public their plan in April. While the financial details drew some complaints from state Rep. Larry Cafero (R-142), the measure wound up passing both houses of the General Assembly without a “nay” vote (there were some abstentions). Norwalk’s delegation gave it a unanimous “yes” vote.
The legislation creates the Office of Early Childhood (OEC), a consolidated agency responsible for coordinating and improving the various early childhood programs and components in the state to create a cohesive high-quality early childhood system. It also directs the OEC to lay out a roadmap for realization of universal pre-K for all Connecticut children, according to a press release from Duff’s office.
Second, the legislation takes a major step toward the achievement of that goal by creating 1,020 new School Readiness Program “slots” to be awarded in Priority School Districts (a group which includes Norwalk), Alliance Districts and Competitive School Districts across the state. These “slots” provide per-child funding to both public and private pre-K programming providers. The legislation increases the amount of these grants from $8,346 per year per child to $8,670 per year. The slots will be awarded through a competitive RFP process, which is currently in progress. The last time new slots were made available, in 2010, 50 were awarded to Norwalk providers, the release said.
Third, the legislation creates the Connecticut Smart Start program, which will provide grants on a competitive basis to any town that can demonstrate an unmet need for preschool education with a priority focus on needy kids. The program will provide capital grants to school districts looking to create or expand preschool programs in public schools for construction or renovation of preschool classroom space, as well as operating funds for preschool programs in the amount of $5,000 per student up to $75,000 per classroom, with a maximum of $300,000 per district.
The Smart Start program will be administered by the Office of Early Childhood. Applicant towns must demonstrate an unmet need for preschool, as well as show how the municipality or district would provide preschool access to children who otherwise would be unable to enroll in a preschool program.
“Expanding access to quality pre-Kindergarten programming is one of the most cost-effective ways we can improve educational outcomes here in Norwalk and all across the country,” Duff said. “Children who begin learning in pre-K gain an advantage that stays with them the rest of their lives. They perform better in the later grades, and are more likely to graduate from high school.”