As part of our series of guest posts from department heads, we asked Superintendent of Schools Cyndy Taymore to answer some questions about the Early Childhood Center.
Why are the ECC fees being raised?
The fees have not been raised in many years. In the meantime, our teachers’ salaries have increased, the costs of operation have increased, and since the ECC has to be self-sustaining, we have to raise the fees to cover the increase in costs.
The school district still assumes the cost for the special education children, as is mandated by federal law. Those costs were approximately $290,000 for this current year.
We have had to deal with reductions in three funding sources: Sequential cuts in federal funding, sequential cuts in state funding, and a drying up of other funds because we were using those funds to offset the cuts in state and federal funding. There are without question more reductions ahead, particularly at the federal level with Title 1 education.
What was the intent of the ECC when it started? What does it mean when the School Committee says it is not part of their core mission?
I think the ECC is a unique and wonderful program in the City of Melrose. I have not seen anything like it in my tenure as an educator. However, no matter how great it is, providing a large early education center for 270 children far exceeds what our obligation is. By state regulation, we are required to provide K through 12 education. By federal regulation, we are required to provide education to children with disabilities from 3 to 22 if they qualify for those programs. So we would have been required to provide special education services for three- to five-year-olds. We chose to go beyond that, knowing that early education is key to a child’s long term success in school. The city created an affordable model that is aligned with the K-12 schools.
Under the federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), we are required to educate children with disabilities from ages 3 to 22. Many years ago, the federal government came out with a preferred model of an integrated classroom in which 51% of the students are typical and 49% are special needs. The intent of this model was to provide role models for special needs students still in the early stages of development. That is still part of our mission.
Do other cities and towns in the area have programs like the ECC?
We are the only suburban community that offers a general education program like this.
Most school systems have a small integrated pre-K program for special education, with 51% of the slots going to typical children, but there is nothing beyond that. Our mandated obligation is to special education students ages 3 to 5, but almost all children benefit from this progressive model.
In other cities and towns, the vast majority of children who go to preschool go to private and nonprofit programs.
What did you do to control costs before the fee increase?
When the ECC was growing, they were trying to provide multiple models of early childhood education to meet everybody’s needs. There were some startup funds available that were able to support that period of growth. Now that the building is up and running, those initial one-time monies are no longer available.
The ECC has been in a stage of growth, and now that we are probably filled to capacity, we have the ability to step back and say “How do we do this in a cost efficient manner and still provide everybody with the options they want?” The key here is the long-term sustainability of this exceptional educational experience for young children.
Will the cuts hurt programming?
No. We have looked at the programming and how we can make it more efficient without taking away options for children.
What are the consequences for the district if we don’t make the ECC self-sufficient?
The community cannot sustain it. If we were to take funds from the school budget to support the ECC, we would be siphoning money off from our elementary schools, middle schools, and high school. That is not the direction we want to go.
What is Title 1, and what are the legal responsibilities of the ECC? Does the fee increase subsidize these programs?
The purpose of Title 1 is to provide targeted assistance to at-risk students up to grade five. We have four Title 1 schools in the district: The Roosevelt, the Lincoln, the Horace Mann, and the ECC.
We have Title 1 tutors who are in the four buildings I just mentioned who provide intervention in literacy and math for struggling students. That is the purpose of Title 1. Title 1 has eligibility criteria. It is not for any child.
The amount of funding has diminished, and it’s a small pot of money that we have to divide among those four schools–and it’s going to get smaller.
The ECC fees do not subsidize special education or Title 1.
Do you support the ECC as a benefit for the Melrose Public Schools?
Absolutely. I support the ECC as a benefit for the Melrose Public Schools. The quality of education is exceptional. The return for parents is you are walking into a program that has the same high expectations for reading, math, and social/emotional development as the elementary school your child will be going to in a year or two.
The curriculum that is provided at the ECC is just that: It is aligned with the curriculum we provide for K through 12 and therefore children who go to the ECC are being provided with literacy and math education that prepares them for the Melrose Public Schools programs.