TRURO — The school committee on April 29 approved a plan to expand the town’s free preschool program so that it can accommodate all the three- and four-year-old children of residents and town employees on a five-days-a-week schedule by the next school year.
Currently, due to limited space and staff, three-year-olds rarely get full weekly slots. The vote comes after more than three years of back-and-forth discussions between the school committee and Truro parents, many of whom came to believe that the committee was unwilling to collaborate with them.
“Anytime the select board or another official asks the school committee to do something, they’ll do it,” said Kate Blehm, the mother of two children at the Truro Central School and a schoolteacher in Orleans. “Not when it comes to parents, though.
“It hasn’t felt very welcoming to families,” she continued. “It’s been like a part-time job coming to meetings and writing letters and inviting other parents.”
Blehm is married to Kolby Blehm, who is a member of the Truro School Committee. He abstained from the April 29 vote because of his conflict of interest on the issue.
“Well, technically, schools are there to provide an education,” said Michelle Jarusiewicz, the vice chair of the school committee. What the state requires regarding the education of young children is narrower than what parents have been asking for, she said, adding that programs “for three- and four-year-olds, five days a week, is not one of those requirements.”
Many early childhood educators nationally, however, have argued for universal free public preschool, based on extensive research showing its benefits.
Even though it’s not required by the state, local parents have argued that the expansion of the preschool program is a necessary step toward making Truro a more viable year-round community. Proponents hope it would encourage young families to put down roots here.
A March 2019 article in the Cape Cod Times assembled Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education data to show that, in the decade between 2009 and 2019, enrollment in schools in Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet dropped from 444 to 336 students — a 24-percent decline.
This year, presumably due to the economic and domestic hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, Truro had an exceptionally high demand for preschool, said Stephanie Costigan, the acting principal of Truro Central School. Costigan will become Truro’s superintendent starting next year.
Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham all have adopted early childhood programs or child-care vouchers to assist young families with the costs of preschool and child care.
In 2018, Provincetown had already begun to try to support younger residents by offering free child care and preschool for all infants, toddlers, and three- and four-year-olds of residents and town employees. When Provincetown town employees who live in Truro began sending their children to Provincetown for preschool, Truro responded by announcing its own free preschool program. However, unlike Provincetown, Truro did not aim to accommodate all families who wanted to participate. Now it will.
The next steps in the expansion process, Costigan said, are hiring the two additional teachers and educational assistants. Additionally, in the coming weeks, school administrators will work with staff to figure out how they are going to use the limited classroom space they have.
At the April 29 meeting, current Supt. Michael Gradone gave a presentation about the plan in which he lamented that, because of the preschool expansion, Truro’s art, music, and Spanish classes will have to happen off the cart — meaning these teachers will visit other classrooms rather than having their own. He hopes the town will be able to add a portable classroom in September 2022.
Everyone — even those who expressed reservations about the expansion — seemed to agree it will, on balance, benefit the town.
“There are downsides to the expansion,” Gradone told the Independent. “But there isn’t much in public education that isn’t a mixed blessing. You make your choices and serve kids as best you can.” Gradone is retiring at the end of the school year.
“I’m very excited about the plan. I think all of us need to support families and people in our communities,” Jarusiewicz said. “We’ve been losing people for decades. Families and individuals struggle to stay here because of the high cost of living. Anything we can do to support them is a good thing.”