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Beaver River Central officials still seeking state pre-K funding

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BEAVER FALLS — While the Beaver River Central School District had little difficulty in adding a universal prekindergarten program this year, getting state funding for it has proven much more problematic.

“The monies were approved in the budget,” District Superintendent Leueen Smithling said. “The grant was initially supposed to come out over the summer.”

However, availability of funding for new pre-K programs ended up being delayed until late September, and Beaver River’s application was ultimately rejected because the district had already started its program at the beginning of the school year, meaning it was technically no longer a new program, Mrs. Smithling said.

“No one told us we couldn’t start the program in September,” she said.

Mrs. Smithling said she has sought the assistance of local state representatives to help rectify the situation. She also publicly raised the issue at a forum in October when state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. visited Watertown, and again earlier this month during an education forum at Lowville Academy and Central School sponsored by the state Assembly’s Republican minority.

So far, district officials have yet to see any tangible results.

“None of us have heard a word,” Mrs. Smithling said.

The Beaver River Board of Education in 2010 established a pre-K program as one of its educational priorities, but state funding for new programs had been frozen for the past several years, she said.

District officials last spring adopted a 2013-14 budget that set aside $200,000 toward a pre-K program for up to 58 students, Mrs. Smithling said.

The cost will likely end up being well under that figure, since only 31 students are now enrolled in the half-day program, but that number may increase in coming years, she said.

Due to uncertainty about state pre-K aid at the time, no additional revenues were factored into the budget, with district officials choosing to move forward with the program — which all other Lewis County school districts already offer — regardless of funding availability.

“This is about helping out 4-year-old children who need the services and helping them be successful in school,” Mrs. Smithling said.

However, the hope was that Beaver River, like other county districts, would be able to get some state money to offset pre-K program costs and lessen the burden on district taxpayers, she said.

A program implemented three years ago that helps students in kindergarten through grade 2 better blend consonants and vowels has proven very beneficial, Mrs. Smithling said.

“We have just seen phenomenal growth in how our kids learn to read,” she said.

However, many kindergarten students have had to, in essence, play catch-up due to the prior lack of a universal pre-K program, Mrs. Smithling said, noting more than half of the incoming kindergarten class were deemed below grade level during their initial screenings.

“It was more than we anticipated,” she said.

And, with more than half of Beaver River students receiving free or reduced lunches, having a pre-K program available is important to give the students here “a fair playing field” versus those from wealthier school districts, Mrs. Smithling said.

“It’s a shame if we don’t get the money, because it’s out there,” she said. “But these are our kids.”

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