The Gloucester Township Public Schools Board of Education this month approved authorization of a purchasing agent to advertise bids for potential building modifications at four district schools for new and upgraded preschool programs.
According to Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Timothy Trow, the potential building modifications are dependent on additional funding through the state’s 2020-2021 Preschool Expansion Aid program. Multiple school officials say they expect to be notified of the funding around April 1.
The district received funding in the range of $1.5 million at the beginning of the current school year that was used to add six additional classrooms. They were up and running during October.
Moving forward, the district has applied for an additional $4 million to further upgrade the Erial and Chews elementary schools, while also making modifications that would allow for the Glen Landing and Ann Mullen middle schools to also host full-day preschool programs.
The district currently accommodates approximately 135 4-year-olds and 45 3-year-olds in its full- and half-day preschool programs, according to Trow. The expectation is that by receiving the requested funding and making the described changes, the district would be able to accommodate an additional 285 preschool students.
Resident Teresa Convery spoke during the BOE meeting’s public comment and requested additional information on the agenda item, saying she felt as if there was a rush to place preschool programs in middle schools.
Convery expressed interest in the need for new facilities at both middle schools to accommodate preschool, as well as the potential need for new administrators, equipment and other items.
Superintendent John Bilodeau defended the board’s decision to consider bringing preschool classes to the middle schools rather than expand in any of the current elementary schools. He cited crowding concerns if elementary schools had to house additional preschool classes.
“Our schools, notably the elementary schools, are full to capacity, so as far as any available rooms that would be there for additional expansion of preschools [programs], we were limited,” Bilodeau said.
He added the district also has looked into working with township early childhood education providers, but that negotiations to create potential partnerships were “unrealistic.”
Recognizing the thought process that led some to think placing preschool programs at a middle school can be unconventional, Bilodeau said the current option the district is exploring is the most feasible and least disruptive.
“Realizing the age difference in population between sixth, seventh and eight graders and 3- or 4-year-olds … we know that we have to essentially isolate them,” he explained.
In recent months, the district administration has said engineers and architects visited both middle schools to develop plans that would accommodate preschool portions of the current school building. According to Bilodeau, the smaller wings of each middle school was selected as ideal for being converted.
“The [preschool] students will be separated physically from the general population,” he added. “They are also on separate bus rides. So it’s not that we haven’t thought it out … there will be physical barriers that will also be installed.”
During the board meeting, Trow said the district considered moving some fifth grade levels in elementary schools to one of the middle schools in order to further expand preschool programs at said elementary schools. But he acknowledged such a change would have created more problems than the current plan.
“Preschool is virtually self-contained: They eat in their classroom, they don’t go to specials … It’s a completed self-contained program the way the state of New Jersey has the curriculum set up,” Trow said.
“So in many ways, it was easier to put Pre-K in the middle school. One of the initial thoughts was what if we moved fifth grade to open up room in the elementary schools, believe it or not, that would create more staffing issues.”
Trow cited the need for shift cafeteria times, specials and more if fifth grade is shifted toward a middle school within the district. Meanwhile, the only large changes that need to be made with the current plan are the isolation of preschool wings from the general middle school population as well as meeting state requirements on facilities for those programs.
Also discussed at the meeting was the proposed 2020-2021 yearly calendar for Gloucester Township Public Schools. Resident Chip Pildis requested information about how schools will operate on Election Day, since three district schools are polling places.
“How do we as educators secure our facility if strangers are coming in to vote?” Pildis asked. “If we went into a true lockdown, during an election at a polling place … it’s something to think about.”
Pildis said he recollected the district being closed on Election Day during a presidential election, but in an interview after the meeting, Bilodeau said he does not remember that happening. Bilodeau said when he first came to the township, eight of the district’s schools were polling places, but he and administration have since reduced the number.
He also said the district is taking strong security measures to ensure students and staff are protected during this years’ election. In the three schools used as polling places, the two libraries and one gymnasium can be easily separated from the general population, according to Bilodeau.
“This summer, because I knew we would be open on Election Day, we will … [be installing] fairly robust gates, wall to wall, ceiling to ceiling, that would be very, very difficult to get through … for added protection,” he said.
The Gloucester Township Police Department also will be present at the three schools during Election Day.