In the tiny Beverly School District, pre-kindergarten facilities have been wanting. The classrooms don’t meet state requirements for size, the Burlington County district’s leaders say, and the pre-K program is prone to have waiting lists.
But that situation is about to improve.
Beverly will get to add a fourth class next month and expand to bigger facilities next year, thanks to an infusion of state money announced Tuesday.
“It’s a real game-changer,” said Amy Hornbeck, Beverly’s master pre-K teacher — a position coaching other teachers that the district, which is receiving an additional $498,000 from the state, said it’s now able to fund.
Beverly was one of 28 districts selected for the latest round of state funding to expand pre-K in New Jersey, an initiative that has been underway for several years.
Following the landmark New Jersey Supreme Court Abbott rulings steering more money to high-poverty schools, a group of 35 districts received state funding for full-day pre-K in the late 1990s. But funding to replicate those programs was slow to follow elsewhere — even as the state passed a law in 2008 requiring that full-day pre-K be provided to at-risk students.
As advocates pushed the state to increase its funding, lawmakers added some money to New Jersey’s budget during the last year of Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure, said Sam Crane, spokesperson for Pre-K Our Way, a group that supports additional state spending on the programs.
Pre-K expansion efforts “stepped up dramatically” under Gov. Phil Murphy, Crane said. Since Murphy took office in 2018, the state has increased funding both of the last two years, giving money to 92 districts to create or expand pre-K programs. Currently, more than 130 school districts offer pre-K, Crane said; New Jersey has 585 districts.
“The demand is expanding, by districts and families,” Crane said. “All of the science and research points that this is the valuable thing to do."
The status of state-funded pre-K programs varies. In 2017-18, New Jersey ranked 24th for access to pre-K for 4-year-olds, with 28 percent enrolled in state-funded programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Pennsylvania ranked 31st, with 14 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled, according to the institute, which is based at Rutgers University.
Pennsylvania has increased spending for “high-quality” pre-K by $145 million since 2015, including by $30 million in the current budget, according to Kate Philips, a spokesperson for the Pre-K for PA advocacy campaign.
The 28 New Jersey districts receiving funding this year — $20 million was available — had to apply to the state Department of Education. To be eligible, at least 20 percent of a district’s students had to be receiving free or reduced-price lunch, or the district had to have been receiving some state funding “to address pockets of poverty.”
The money will allow an additional 1,450 students to access pre-K, state officials said. Districts in South Jersey receiving the money include Beverly City, Burlington Township, and Edgewater Park in Burlington County; Gloucester Township and Mount Ephraim, Camden County; and Glassboro and National Park, Gloucester County.
In Beverly, 15 more students will be able to enroll in the district’s pre-K program next month.
In “a low-income district like Beverly City, to give them that fighting edge ... is going to mean the world," said superintendent Elizabeth Giacobbe.
Beverly is trying to quickly recruit students for the new seats opening in October — as is the Gloucester Township School District, which learned Tuesday it will receive $1.5 million from the state.
The funding will allow the Camden County district, which enrolls 6,400 K-8 students, to expand its pre-K program from 40 to 150 students next month, said superintendent John Bilodeau.
“We anticipate more demand from parents than we have seats for this year,” Bilodeau said, adding that Gloucester Township plans to try to find additional classroom space for the program to expand further next year.