Central Avenue closing means upgrade for preschool

Family advocate Fatima Garcia helps Chef Combo teach preschoolers, from left, Kaitlyn Jean-Baptiste, Lilah Niklewski and Gabriella Cordero, that healthy food creates strong muscles. Preschoolers will move from their Prospect Street building next year into what is now Central Avenue Elementary School. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — While Central Avenue Elementary School parents grieve to hear their children will be sent to other schools next year, parents and staff at Prospect Street Preschool are praising the school board’s decision to relocate preschool programs to Central Avenue.

“I think it’s the smartest thing the Board of Education has done in a long time,” said Sarah Poynton, president of the union for noncertified staffers and the mother of a 3-year-old at Prospect Street.

The board last month proposed closing the elementary school and the preschool to save about $1.5 million next year, as the school system faces a funding gap due to the loss of federal grant funds and increased operating costs. The Central Avenue students will be split up among other elementary schools, while enrollees in the federal Head Start and state School Readiness preschool programs were supposed to occupy the now-vacant St. Hedwig School.

The borough’s special education preschool, which now enrolls more than 40 children, would move to unused classrooms in Maple Hill Elementary School.

Those involved in the preschool lobbied district administrators to keep the special education and mainstream students together. Some special education preschoolers, including Poynton’s son Jack Yablonski, are “co-taught,” meaning they spend just half their day in special education.

Jack is in special education for speech therapy and spends the rest of the day in School Readiness, Poynton said.

“He gets to be exposed to kids, who are 3 and 4 years old, who are a little more advanced,” Poynton said. “Just like anybody who you surround yourself with, you pick up their habits.”

Other special education preschoolers participate in a peer mentoring initiative with the mainstream students, said Janice Mons, who directs the borough’s Head Start and School Readiness programs. The interaction helps many integrate to mainstream education by the time they reach kindergarten, Mons said.

Children who do not receive special education also benefit from those who do, Mons said.

“They learn sensitivity and compassion for others that have special needs, so it makes a difference in their life also,” Mons said.

The borough’s Head Start and School Readiness programs enroll 111 preschoolers combined.

Board members said preschoolers would be bused between St. Hedwig and Maple Hill if they were split up. Before the reconfiguration two years ago that turned Prospect Street into a preschool, children were bused between Maple Hill and City Hill Middle School.

The preschoolers integrated more seamlessly when they all were moved under one roof, Mons said.

The school board approved the use of Central Avenue as a preschool last week, although it will save about $400,000 less than completely closing the elementary school because a nurse and two custodians will be retained.

The preschool is in fact getting an upgrade by moving into Central Avenue, Superintendent of Schools John Tindall-Gibson said.

“Central is a viable, very functional building, and to close it down would be unfortunate, because it does have certain features that Prospect Street doesn’t have — specifically, an elevator for handicap accessibility,” Tindall-Gibson said.

Parents and staff, however, said they were not angling for a better facility.

“The building didn’t make any difference, where we went,” Mons said. “I just wanted to make sure we remained intact.”

What will happen to the former Catholic school at 32 Golden Hill St., next to the preschool, remains to be seen. It has not been used as a school since St. Francis of Assissi School absorbed the students into its larger downtown building.