In February 2023, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the availability of $120 million in grants for preschool facility expansion and announced an additional $2.6 million to assist 33 school districts with supplementary start-up funding.

Since Murphy took office, high-quality preschool programs have been introduced at over 160 school districts, opening seats for more than 12,000 additional children.

“Expanding access to free, full-day preschool programs represents an investment in the future of New Jersey’s children,” Murphy said. “A quality preschool education provides students with the foundational skills they need to learn and succeed as they advance through life, which is why we must – and will – continue to work towards universal pre-K throughout New Jersey.”

The $120 million in grant funding – made possible through an allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars in the fiscal year 2023 budget – marks the first time that preschool facility expansion grants will be available to regular operating districts.

As more school districts open or expand preschool programs, they are also reaching out to parents, many of whom are interacting with the school system for the first time. Much of the time, this outreach is in the form of “parent academies,” although school districts may sometimes refer to such programming by a different name.

To help school districts forge more meaningful connections with parents and support learning in the classroom, we reached out to two school districts to get their insights on how to start or enhance a preschool parent academy.

Setting an Example in Manchester  Dr. Lori Burns, director of early childhood education with the Manchester Board of Education in Ocean County, said the district received preschool expansion aid funding in September 2022. “We actually kicked off the preschool in October 2022, and our first parent academy was in November 2022,” she said.

Previously, the district had a half-day program that serviced about 55 students, with half of those children attending a morning session and the others going to school in the afternoon. Since the district received PEA funding, all preschool classes are now a full day, Burns said.

There are about 150 preschool students in the PEA-funded program, Burns said, consisting of 10 classes with 15 students each. The district also has three preschool disabled classes that are not fully funded by PEA.

“But because our preschool collaborates with those teachers, parents are able to go to those parent academies, she said, noting that those classes include an additional 34 students. “So, we have 184 students total, and we will be growing yearly,” she said. “We will reach at least 225 in the years to come – and perhaps upward of over 300.”

The children in the disabled classes have Individualized Education Programs and need intensive support, Burns said. “However, many times, since they are progressing, we are able to move these students into PEA classrooms. They might still have an IEP, but they may need less support, so they can then join a less restrictive environment.”

With the funding comes quite a bit of language as to what the guidelines are for using that funding. Preschool expansion aid is specific for preschool only. Within the guidelines, they do have language regarding parent academies.

Jessica Brosnan, a community parent involvement specialist, noted there is a parental outreach component that is integral to the preschool expansion aid funding. “Some districts might call it something slightly different than a parent academy, but that is the wording we’ve chosen,” she said.

Choosing Useful Topics Manchester’s preschool parent academies have highlighted topics that are specific to what families have expressed an interest in, Brosnan said.

“One of the components of my position is that I put out a needs assessment to families at the beginning of the school year – and the results of that needs assessment inform the type of parent academies that we have,” she said.

One of the most important things to remember about a preschool expansion aid funded program is that it is separate from the K-12 budget, Burns said. “Many times, community members have misunderstandings regarding the funding,” she said. “Preschool expansion aid funding can only be used for the preschool.”

Manchester received over $3 million for its program from the state, which was one of the largest packages a school district received, Burns said. “There is a line item for Jessica’s role, and a line item that is specific to community and parent involvement,” she said.

Some of that money goes toward parent meetings, and the district also holds a preschool open house, where community members can learn about the program and register on the spot, Burns said. “There is also a community resource fair, where parents can learn about resources that may help them, which may be anything from the police to the library,” she said.

“We use many different ways to encourage participation,” Brosnan said. She has an email list that allows her to quickly contact parents. “That’s always my go to,” she said. “I can send out an email with a flier, with a request to RSVP.” Typically, a hard copy will also go home with the student, she said. “Teachers will also reach out to families via Class Dojo or an electronic platform,” she said. “We give people lots of different ways to respond.”

The district is also fortunate to have a public information officer, Dina Silvestri, on staff, Burns said. “Our preschool team meets with her regularly to go over upcoming events and to make sure she can share them via different platforms,” she said.

“We have had really nice participation in each of the academies,” Brosnan said, noting that as of April 2023, there had been four meetings, drawing about 75 participants.

She attributes the solid turnout to covering the topics parents said they wanted to learn more about via a needs assessment survey. “We plan the academies based on what they requested, and that is a big part of why they have been so successful,” she said.

The parent academies have been offered in person and in a virtual format. “The last virtual program we held included a child participation piece,” Brosnan said. “We called it a virtual preschool playdate. It consisted of an informational session with families first, followed by a craft led by the preschool instructional coach for the kids. We received nice feedback on it and will include that kind of activity in future events as well.”

Manchester’s first preschool parent academy included an overview of the preschool curriculum, Brosnan said. Another session focused on behavior management, another on child development and another on ways to encourage preschool children to develop a love for reading.

“We are very mindful of the demands of family and have varied the locations of which school we hold a program in,” Burns said. “We have offered online sessions and varied times, with some programs being in the evening and some during the day.”

Free childcare is provided during parent academies, which has encouraged participation, Burns said. The district also offers preschool registration before and after each meeting, so if a parent has a younger child they need to enroll for next year, they can do so and make it “a one stop shop,” she said. “We try to make it as easy as possible for the parents,” she said, adding that the district has also had success putting events back-to-back to boost participation.

While offering childcare is not required, it’s helpful for parents, Burns said. 

“We have our National Honor Society students and their supervisor overseeing the children,” Brosnan said. “The parents have expressed that their children really enjoy engaging with those students. They think they are very cool, and they like hanging out with those teenagers … some of the children are reluctant to leave because they are having so much fun!”

Spending time with the children also enables the National Honor Society students to complete volunteer hours and learn about what it looks like to work in early childhood education, Brosnan said. “Many of them are interested in our profession,” she said.

“We have parents that attend every single parent academy meeting, and they always speak very highly of the presenter, the topic and of Jessica and the way she organizes everything,” Burns said.

“I can’t say we have had a lot of challenges,” Brosnan said. “We are kind of meeting everyone where they are and meeting their needs.”

Asked about which programs have been most popular, Brosnan noted there was a great turnout on an initial session that provided an overview of the preschool curriculum. “The parents were very impressed with the level of curriculum and the types of activities their children would be engaged with every day,” she said. They also enjoyed learning about the structure of the day.”

She also received great feedback on the academy’s session on behavior management.

“The preschool intervention referral specialist who delivered the program, Morgan Cassella, is an expert in the use of techniques to use in the classroom to help children regulate their emotions,” Brosnan said. “That allowed parents to get an understanding of what techniques they may be able to carry over into their homes.”

Getting Parents Involved  For schools looking to start or enhance a preschool parent academy, Burns said getting parents to fill out a needs assessment survey is critical.

“Make it part of the registration process or when you do a meet and greet,” she said. There is also a home visit component to preschool expansion aid funding, so you could also have parents complete the assessment “right then and there,” she said. “That will allow you to have the most accurate data to learn their overall interest areas,” she said.

“We use the results of that survey to decide what topics are going to be the most informative for the families,” Brosnan said. “It is all individualized based on the community – and every community has different needs.”

Varying the time and location of meetings, offering childcare if possible and piggybacking on existing events are all potential strategies, Brosnan said. “If you have an event happening at the elementary school that is well attended, have the preschool parent academy the hour before so parents do not have to go multiple times,” she explained.

Members of the preschool staff are always invited to attend. “District administrators often attend, and we work with them collaboratively,” Brosnan said. “They are always interested to see what is going on in the preschool.” 

Board members can lend their support by attending preschool events, Burns said. “We have board members who have attended our Back-to-School night, our parent academies and our preschool open house,” she said. “The best way for them to show their support is by coming to the events we provide.”

Tips for Others Seeking Funding If you work at a school district that is seeking preschool expansion aid, you must be very clear regarding your needs, your community, demographics and the ways you will utilize the funding when filling out a preschool expansion aid application, Burns said.

“For our first year, we received over $3 million, and for our funding next year, we received a little bit extra. About 80% of each budget typically goes toward benefits and the salary for staff members. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s necessary when you are starting a brand-new program,” Burns said. “My biggest points in filling out the application would be to be clear about your need in your district and be very clear as to how you will utilize those funds.”

Manchester is fortunate to have a great team, which includes Burns, Brosnan, two preschool instructional coaches and a preschool intervention and referral specialist – all of whom are required with preschool expansion aid funding. “With our core team, we have over 50 years of preschool experience,” Burns said.

In a bid to help other districts secure funding, Burns started the Early Childhood Education Collaborative, which any district in Ocean County or Monmouth County can join.

“I started it with the intent of recognizing the level of experience we are fortunate to have,” Burns said. “We are eager to help districts looking to apply for the funding and who may need assistance.”

The collaborative held its first meeting in November 2022, with more than 10 area school districts sending representatives, Burns said. She expects representatives from more than two dozen districts to attend the next meeting, she said. Meetings are held in a large conference room at the middle school.

“Any district applying for PEA funding can come,” she said. 

Reaching Out in Woodlynne Gina Wirth, a preschool instructional coach at Woodlynne Elementary School in Camden County, said the district has three preschool programs that are fully integrated, with the special education and general education students all in the same classrooms.

Each classroom has a teacher and an aide, with 15 students in each room. Of those students, five of them in each class are special education students, she said.

The preschool program has received funding from the state for five years. The district began offering a preschool parent academy in 2022 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“We found out we were approved for funding in August 2017, and the first year was a big learning curve for us as we put things into place,” Wirth said. “As time went on, we held ‘parent meetings’ but nothing as structured as the parent academy we run today. Of course, COVID threw a big wrench into our plans to create a structured parent academy, too.”

With the meetings during the pandemic being virtual, the staff quickly realized that there was a language barrier, as they did not have a translator present and many of the parents were Spanish speakers, she said.

It was also challenging to determine when the best time was to hold meetings. “We played with some times from 6 p.m. to right after school,” she said. “We found our sweet spot in having the meetings right after school, and we let the kids know we had a craft planned – so then they would tell their parents that they wanted to do the craft.”

The school has gotten some help from the New Jersey Education Association, which has provided grants that have gone a long way in terms of providing refreshments and giveaways at the parent meetings, Wirth said.

“I am the president of the union at the school, and I was a Pride chair for many years,” Wirth said. “When we pay dues, NJEA supports us by using some of that for grants. We can apply for a grant if we can show the NJEA how we are reaching out to the community and nurturing our relationships with families – and they are happy to support our efforts.”

The district has to apply for a Pride grant from the NJEA each year, and the amounts can vary, with the district often receiving about $1,000, she said.

When the school launched its academy during the pandemic, attendance was sporadic even though meetings were virtual, she said.

“We realized we had to get a few things in order to be more effective,” she said. “We initially invited parents at 6 p.m., because parents indicated on a survey that it would be the best time, but after a while we realized that the best time was right after school.”

Involvement has also increased with the meetings being in person, she said. “Our attendance has really grown – for our last two meetings, we’ve had at least a third of the parent population, which means we’ve had about 20 families represented at the last two meetings,” she said.

“Telling the kids about the meeting and having them involved and bringing information home is so much more impactful,” Wirth said. “We also have big banners around the school the day of the event in both English and Spanish.” The staff also advertise the program outside the preschool rooms on tables to add some excitement about attending, she said.

Now, there is also always a staff member who speaks Spanish to serve as a translator at meetings as needed, Wirth said. The district offers a staff member a stipend to serve in such a capacity, she said.

While participation has improved with some tweaks, scheduling remains the biggest challenge, Wirth said. “The ones who could come later at night can’t come right after school, and the funding is not there to do two programs,” she said.

Hitting the Sweet Spots Preschool staff look at the topics in the curriculum that students might need to work on more when deciding what to focus on at each academy, Wirth said. Other subjects range from potty training to how to teach literacy in the home to how to address behavior problems.

“If we are struggling with behavior in school, then certainly they are struggling with it at home,” she said. “We help them understand the research, and being on the same page helps with the consistency.”

The staff also includes a question-and-answer portion at each parent meeting, which can pay dividends in terms of planning future events. “It’s a natural progression,” she said, noting that if questions in a particular area keep coming up, then that might be a good subject to cover later on. “Or we can find a video on that topic and send some information home on that,” she said.

One of the more popular programs focused on literacy, she said. “Parents grew to understand the importance of reading to their children, regardless of what language they are reading in,” she said. “A lot of people thought that they should only be reading to their child in English, but we told them to read – and it does not matter if it’s only in Spanish.”

Another program focused on extending learning into the home. “For instance, have children find the alphabet in your house,” she said. “When we gave parents something they could take home and do, it stuck a little more.” 

Asked about the pandemic, Wirth said that it has absolutely had an effect on the preschoolers currently in school.

“I think the biggest one is the social and emotional piece,” she said. “Because they had some of their instruction on the computer, it is so different when you have them in the classroom, and they are interacting with each other and the teachers. We are seeing a lot more impulsive behavior and a lot less language being used. They may just go over and grab a toy from someone instead of asking, ‘Can I play with that?’ We are teaching them skills that they normally would have naturally come here with.”

She speculates that some of the problems that have resulted from the pandemic, both among the preschool population and older students, have contributed to some of the burnout throughout the teaching profession. 

As for what recommendations Wirth would give to other school districts looking to start or enhance a preschool parent academy, she said it’s important to plan them out as much as possible, which includes when and where you will have them.

“Be ready to play around with the time,” she said. “Just because 2:30 p.m. works for our school does not mean it will work at another. Incorporating snacks, giveaways and crafts has really helped us. That really engages everyone, and they have a really good time.”

Board of education members, she said, can show their support by attending the programs and asking questions, she said. “When we get buy-in on all fronts, it becomes a stronger program,” she said. 

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s manager of communications and publications.