Kennedy School principal Cris Anderson is looking forward to getting three new preschool classrooms in the near future, but she knows those three won't be enough to fill the need for high quality, affordable preschool in Lawrence.
"We are 90 percent full (for next year) and we've only been enrolling for two weeks," Anderson said this week. "I know when I start next fall, I could easily have a waiting list of 30 kids."
Kennedy will get the new classrooms and other renovations as a result of the school district's recently passed $92.5 million bond issue. But district officials said they don't yet know when that will occur within the schedule of the bond-funded projects.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Kelly, director of the Community Children's Center, said she sees the same kind of backlog for enrollment at the three nonprofit preschools in Lawrence that receive federal Head Start funding.
"We have a waiting list currently, for this year, of about two more classrooms, so about 38 kids on the waiting list," Kelly said.
The result, they said, is that a large number of students in Lawrence — possibly as many as 20 to 25 percent — enter kindergarten each year not fully prepared, and thus at risk of falling behind early in their education and at risk of having further long-term difficulties later in life.
Pointing to one long-term research project called the Perry Preschool Study, Anderson said there is strong evidence that having access to high quality preschool programs early in life pays dividends throughout a person's life.
"All the research will tell you that in addition to the benefits (preschool) had academically, the benefits that it had as a citizen, as a community member, as an employee, as a spouse, as a parent — it all had long-lasting benefits," Anderson said.
Access for lower income families
Both the Lawrence school district and area Head Start centers provide free preschool for children of low- and moderate-income families.
Kennedy School, 1605 Davis Road, is now the home of the Lawrence school district's early-childhood education program, which was formerly located at the now-closed East Heights Early Childhood Family Center.
The all-day preschool program for 4-year-olds — also known as the "Four-Year-Old At-Risk" program — is funded through the state school finance formula and is free for families who qualify for free meals under the National School Lunch Program.
Those are families with income below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $25,389 per year for a family of three.
It can also be free to those who qualify for reduced-price lunches, if the families meet certain other criteria. That would be $36,130 for a family of three.
The state pays about half the cost of the program by counting each child as one half of a full-time student, even though it's a full-day preschool program. The rest of the cost comes from the district's local option budget and private funds raised by the Lawrence Schools Foundation, district officials said.
Students who qualify for special education services are also eligible for free preschool beginning at age 3, although that program is funded separately. Kennedy also offers preschool services for a fee to children who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Head Start is free only for those who qualify for free lunches. Kelly said federal funds pay about 60 percent of the costs, with the other 40 percent coming from a combination of private donations and money from the state Children's Initiative Fund, which is the state's share of money from a settlement with the tobacco industry.
Shortage of spaces
At Kennedy, there are currently 70 slots available in the regular all-day preschool program for 4-year-olds, plus another 10 full-day slots for 4-year-olds who qualify for special education.
That's down from the 96 slots that were available before the program moved from East Heights Early Childhood Family Center.
"I had to let one of my (preschool) classrooms go because of the K-5 growth that was occurring at Kennedy," Anderson said. "I had to make a very tough decision about dropping from six classrooms with 96 down to five with 80."
In the three Head Start preschools, Kelly said there are currently 78 slots, but that will likely be reduced next year because of the federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
"We have been sequestered," Kelly said. "As of April 1, we lost 5 percent of our budget from the feds. So we're trying to look at what we're going to do because that is going to result in losing some enrollment next year."
The three schools are at Plymouth Congregational Church, 945 Vermont St.; the Edgewood housing development, 1600 Haskell Ave.; and the First Baptist Church, 1330 Kasold Drive.
And while there are other preschool programs available in Lawrence — some that charge fees, and others that receive subsidies from the state — Anderson and Kelly both said it's clear there is a shortage of affordable preschool in Lawrence. It's just difficult to measure exactly how big the shortage is.
The waiting lists for both programs are one indicator, but Anderson said those numbers are deceptive because some families put themselves on multiple waiting lists, while others don't bother getting on a waiting list at all.
"If you're full, you're full. They need something now," Anderson said. "They can't sit back and wait for you to call them."
Another indicator, Anderson said, is to look at the number of children entering kindergarten who qualify for free or reduced-price meals but who never attended preschool.
"It's usually about 20-25 percent of your kids could have qualified," she said. "That's a lot of kids."
According to Kansas State Department of Education data, the Lawrence district has about 900 students in each of its early elementary grades, K-3. And throughout the district, about 35 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Assuming there are about the same number of 4-year-olds eligible to enter preschool, that would mean there are roughly 315 children in the community at any given time who would likely be eligible for a free preschool program — more than twice as many as are currently enrolled through Kennedy and the Head Start preschools.
If Anderson is correct in her estimate that 20 percent to 25 percent of eligible students never attend preschool, that would be nearly 80 children per year who are entering kindergarten with no background from preschool.
The three new classrooms funded by the bond issue are expected to add about 48 preschool slots, but Anderson said it has not been decided how many of those will be allocated for the Four-Year-Old At-Risk program.