Back to School : Kennedy Center to Host Some of the City’s First Universal Pre-K Classrooms

When Mayor Martin Walsh announced the move to Universal Pre-Kindergarten throughout the city earlier this year, the Kennedy Center in Charlestown moved quickly to become one of the first providers in the city to host the effort in their Hayes Square building.

As students go back to school this coming month, at least 30 families will benefit from two classrooms of Boston Public Schools-aligned Universal Pre-K (age 4).

Thara Fuller, the new executive director of the Kennedy Center, said they will have two classrooms available this year, and classes will run alongside their existing programs for that age group. However, now the curriculum for Universal Pre-K will be in alignment with the BPS’s existing curriculum for Pre-K.

“Because we will be a designated part of the BPS rollout of Universal Pre-K, we will be able to offer a certain number of free spots to families from the neighborhood for the school day,” said Fuller. “It is progressing ahead in partnership with BPS. There is a curriculum and we’ll continue to offer the same services to our other families as well…We’ll continue to offer programming for other pre-school 4-year-olds. All of our other services will be in place for families that qualify for subsidies and our private pay families. We’ll still offer all that.”

Jason Sachs is the executive director for Early Childhood at BPS, and he said the Kennedy Center was one of the first to show interest and move ahead aggressively. Already, there are about 2,800 Pre-K seats in BPS at school buildings, but they are highly sought after and include horrifically-long waiting lists. There are many more students than seats, and that is a well-known reality for parents in Charlestown.

Sachs came in under the Menino Administration and developed a rigorous, nationally-acclaimed model that has demonstrated measured changes for children that participate. To get the rollout going, he said they wanted to start in the first year with established community-based providers in the neighborhoods like Kennedy Center.

“It was a pretty arduous application process,” he said. “We took applications from community-based providers first for the rollout…The JFK Center is one of the programs and they are getting 30 seats in Charlestown. It’s very exciting…In the first few years the goal is to do this in community-based programs for 750 seats. We have 2,800 seats in schools already, but there are a lot of families that are working…and can’t access K1. We wanted to offer this to community-based programs first so that we weren’t displacing their existing services, but working with them.”

He said in Charlestown there is great need because of so many kids attending the Harvard-Kent, Warren-Prescott and Eliot Schools.

“There is high demand in Charlestown,” he said. “This is an opportunity to provide at least some K1 seats at the Kennedy Center for 30 families.”

Sachs said they had a goal of 450 seats this year in community-based programs, and have ended up with 487 that are qualified.

The overall process is a five-year rollout to get Pre-K available to every student, but the Kennedy Center’s Fuller said it’s something they wanted to do fast.

There are very few changes that need to be done to the building, she said, but they did have to make changes to the training and staffing of the programs. All of the programs had to meet a very high standard of quality set by BPS, and all teachers had to have a Bachelor’s Degree.

“It’s not starting from scratch,” she said. “We have the classrooms and the facilities. We have highly qualified teachers and we’re really ready to go. That’s why we were selected because we do have these systems already in place…We’re building a great relationship with BPS working towards alignment. Anything we can do to create more spaces to help our young kids go to school in the neighborhood. That is so very important.”

There are potentially spaces still available for Universal Pre-K, and Fuller said to come to the Kennedy Center to see about enrollment. The school day goes from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and they do offer an extended day for a fee.

Universal Pre-K at the Kennedy Center will start on Sept. 9.

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