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LI district gets $968G grant to expand pre-K

June Hicks, a pre-K teacher, reads a book

June Hicks, a pre-K teacher, reads a book to some of the Roosevelt district's youngest learners at Ulysses Byas Elementary School on Thursday. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

The Roosevelt school district will expand its prekindergarten program to more 4-year-olds and offer it to a limited number of 3-year-olds for the first time, thanks to a $968,150 state grant, officials said Thursday.

“Oh, we are absolutely ecstatic!” Superintendent Marnie Hazelton said. "Early childhood education is the root connected to the tree, and as we look toward a 100 percent graduation rate in the high school, we know the foundation starts in that early grade."

District officials learned of the grant Wednesday afternoon, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that $15 million will go to 32 high-need systems across the state to enroll 2,000-plus more children in prekindergarten. Roosevelt is the only Long Island district receiving an award.

The district's full-day program for 4-year-olds now has 142 students in classes in its elementary schools. The grant will enable the system to offer spots to 54 more 4-year-olds and to 18 3-year-olds. The students are selected by lottery. Roosevelt currently has eight 4-year-olds on its waiting list.

Hazelton said she hopes to have the expansion up and running by January with assistance from local community-based organizations, such as day-care centers. Optimally, all pre-K programs will be in the district's own buildings by the start of the 2019-20 academic year, she said.

Hazelton said providing education to these younger students "will bring in a crop of kindergarten students who will be better prepared … and they will be familiar with sight words, colors and numbers, and school readiness will be a component of their success."

Funding was awarded to school districts based on the quality of the application and other factors, including district and student need, as well as the system's efforts to target the highest-need students and maximize the total number of children served in prekindergarten programs.

Hazelton credited Nichelle Rivers, Roosevelt's director of grants and funded programs, who wrote the district's application. Upon learning of the award, Rivers "couldn't contain her excitement," the superintendent said. "This is an excellent and wonderful grant."

The district, which has more than 3,200 students, is one of the poorest of Nassau County's 54 systems in socioeconomic terms, with 67 percent of pupils designated as economically disadvantaged, according to 2016-17 data from the state Education Department, the most recent publicly available.

Because of Roosevelt's low academic performance, fiscal troubles, crumbling infrastructure and leadership challenges, the state took over the district in 2002 — the only time that has been done in New York's history — and ran it until 2013.

The challenges did not end when the state relinquished control. Individual Roosevelt schools were among those given “priority” status on the state’s accountability lists, meaning that they ranked within the bottom 5 percent academically of all schools statewide.

In recent years, the system has shown improvement. None of its five schools is on a state watch list for academic or fiscal concerns, and its credit rating has been boosted. Educators there have expressed confidence that the high school will have a 100 percent graduation rate by 2020.

Cuomo's office said the funding for expansion of prekindergarten to high-need or underserved districts is part of ongoing efforts to promote early education and improve the academic future for all students. The state received 77 proposals, including nine from districts on Long Island.

"New York is committed to ensuring every child gets a fair shot at a high-quality education," Cuomo said in a statement. "This funding will help level the academic playing field for children in underserved communities and put students on a path toward opportunity and success."

In 2013, Cuomo created the state's first full-day prekindergarten seats. Two years later, New York expanded pre-K to serve 3-year-olds for the first time.

Lucinda Hurley, coordinator of the Long Island Pre-K Initiative, said the group is “delighted” that Roosevelt was awarded the funds. The initiative is a grant-funded project administered by Nassau BOCES that seeks to share information about research, policy and best practices for early learning.

Only 9 to 10 percent of all Long Island children have access to a full-day pre-K program, she said, in contrast to the New York City schools, which in recent years expanded the full-day program to serve 3- and 4-year-olds.

“Most of the programs funded on Long Island are half-day programs, which makes it difficult for families to take advantage of it because either they need to find someone for before and after care that they pay for, transportation to those placements are a problem and oftentimes higher-needs families really can’t manage that,” she said.

The state's financial commitment to pre-K now is more than $800 million annually, serving 120,000 students ages 3 and 4 each year, at no cost to families, according to the governor's office.

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