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Monday, September 24 Local

Shelton parents cry foul over free pre-K program that now charges

SHELTON — A group of parents have cried foul over a decision to start charging them tuition for a district-run preschool program that was free when they signed up.

The program invited typical 3- and 4-year-olds to apply as candidates to serve as peer role models in special needs preschool classes run by the school district.

Beth Jones jumped at the chance for her daughter Lucy a year ago. The program included an extensive interview and vetting process.

“It was free and it was high quality,” said Jones.

Now Jones and other parents are calling on the school board to grandfather them into a two-year program that has suddenly become tuition-based.

The school board decided over the summer to charge parents in the Mohegan PreK Typical Peer Program $2,500 a year for the five-day-a-week program. The tuition was among $2.4 million worth of adjustments made to bring the district’s school budget plan in line with the $72.7 million approved by the city.

When the board thought a revised school bus contract was going to bring them some budgetary relief, elimination of the preschool tuition was discussed.

“In all fairness, we should give preschool parents the time to find the right place for their child,” Board member Kate Kutash said at the time.

Ultimately, however, the savings didn’t materialize and a vote wasn’t taken.

Kutash added this week, “there were two of us hoping to grandfather in at no cost the children who had already been in the program for a year. Sadly, it does not appear likely that this will be possible.”

Even so, Jones hopes when the school board’s finance committee meets within the next week there will be a reconsideration.

”I understand their (budgetary) situation, but at the end of the day, the right thing for them to do is to grandfather us in,” said Jones. “It’s causing us to make tough choices personally and will impact quality of program.”

The program is designed so that preschoolers with special needs play and learn around typical peers. Getting in as a “typical peer” required strong language and social skills. When Jones signed her daughter up last year as a 3-year-old, she counted 20 or more families in the cafeteria. Just a dozen were chosen.

This year, Jones said, just five typical peers signed up when they learned there was a fee.

“Part of what makes the program work is that it is an inclusion program,” Jones said. “The idea to get special ed children used to a mixed environment.”

Michele Brandao, another parent, said the program works both ways, teaching typical peers compassion and empathy toward others.

“She grew so much and took pride in helping other children,” Brandao said of her now 4-year-old.

Brandao said she would have her child in the program with or without a charge because it is so good, but agrees the timing left a lot to be desired.

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The district website still advertises the program as free.

Schools Superintendent Chris Clouet said he anticipates the quality of the program and the reasonable cost compared with many private pre-K operations will continue to make it attractive.

Many districts charge tuition for general education peers in prekindergarten, Clouet added.

Laura Boyle, another parent, said the sudden switch gave her no time to save for a $2,500 tuition bill or find another option for her child.

“The programs we would be interested in close applications in March,” Boyle said. “The issue is not only the charge but the way we were notified and the way it was rolled out.”

Boyle said without relief, she will have to pull her child out of the program. By her count, just 15 typical peers are in the program this year.

Board members said they remain concerned and looking for a better-case scenario.

Board member “Dr. (Darlisa) Ritter and I, along with Kate Kutash, were very concerned about charging the preschool typical peers this year — especially considering the parents were only given about two months notice to come up with the tuition,” said board member Kathy Yolish.

“I questioned how much it actually costs the school system for the typical peers, since the teacher and paraprofessionals are already there for the special needs program and the typical peer parents provide transportation, snacks, milk, etc. The program mostly utilizes manipulatives, other "hands-on" equipment, big books and other story books so I don't think the materials are a cost problem,” she said. “I have been in contact with Dr. Clouet and he said further investigation into this as well as further discussion will be taking place within the week. Hopefully, if there has to be a charge, it will be a much lesser amount.”

Linda Conner Lambeck|Education Reporter

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