Noting that studies find early childhood education can make a big difference in whether disadvantaged students succeed in school, the Menlo Park City School District is considering a fee-based preschool program that would offer scholarships to needy families.
At an April 18 meeting, board members were told that, if approved, the program would not begin until fall 2018. The plan is to pay all the costs of the preschool program with parent fees, with the amount set high enough to enable up to a quarter of students to receive full scholarships.
Superintendent Maurice Ghysels said there is an "overwhelming amount of evidence" on the value of early childhood education.
Assistant Superintendent Erik Burmeister said the tentative plan is to start in the fall of 2018 with 48 students in two classes operating five days a week, full-time and year-round.
The program would probably start at the Laurel School Lower Campus (95 Edge Road in Atherton), which has the best access, location, configuration and capacity, said Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's chief business and operations officer.
The preschool would give priority for admission to students living in the district, and siblings of students from East Palo Alto and Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood who attend the Menlo Park City School District schools as part of the Tinsley program. Next priority for admission would go to children of staff not living in the district.
A board subcommittee made up of board members Joan Lambert and Terry Thygesen, plus Mr. Burmeister and Mr. Ghysels, visited preschools including Bing Nursery School at Stanford University, a San Carlos School District preschool, All Five in Menlo Park and Educare in San Jose.
Mr. Burmeister said they were told the San Carlos program is loved by the community and prepares students for success in the school district. "They have a waiting list," he said. "This is a win/win for everybody."
He said research has shown that work to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and other students needs to start at ages 4 or 5. "We do have pockets of poverty and we do have pockets of academic need" in the district, he said. Mr. Burmeister said that about 6 percent of the district's students are considered economically disadvantaged.
The district could hire a preschool director during the 2017-18 school year using funds that have been set aside for one-time use for early childhood education, he said.
Carol Thomsen, founder of the All Five preschool in Menlo Park, told the board she thinks the plan is "very, very exciting and forward thinking."
"I think it's really important, and I think it's really hard (to do)," she said.
Ms. Thomsen said the district should be sure it has a very high quality program, with a teacher-to-student ratio of no more than one to eight. She also warned that if the district wants to attract the families in the Tinsley program, transportation will be a problem because many parents won't put young children on a bus.
Board member David Ackerman suggested the district try to pay the preschool teachers on par with its other teachers, which is more than usual. "It would allow us to steal the very best preschool teachers around," he said.
After the meeting, board member Joan Lambert said the district has been discussing opening a preschool for years. In late 2015 the board adopted as one of its strategic direction goals: "Design and develop programs that add value for future MPCSD families prior to their children entering kindergarten including the pursuit of early learning education options and resources for children ages zero to five."
"We realized that if we were going to be serious about trying to close the achievement gap we really needed to do something before kids enter kindergarten," she said. The district already has a summer preschool program for incoming kindergartners who need extra preparation. "We wanted to do as much as possible to have all kids be ready, socially and academically, for kindergarten," she said.
A preschool program was always meant to be self-sustaining, she said. "It was always intended not to encroach on the general fund," she said.
Parents have also asked for a preschool. "If we have excess space in our facilities ever, we want to use that in ways to best serve the community," she said. "I think it's very tough for parents around here now" to find preschools, she said.