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Preston - A few visitors to the preschool class at Preston Veterans Memorial School smiled as students were instructed to "Put your right foot in, and put your right foot out" and do the Hokey Pokey as part of a full day of lessons mixed with art, play and physical exercise.
After the motion group lesson, occupational therapist Nina Gentes led the children through a series of yoga-like moves that let them pretend to be trees swaying in the breeze, airplanes stretched out on the floor and rockets taking off to the moon.
Then came small group sessions to learn letters, write their names on colorful artwork or write notes, put them in envelopes, address them to friends and deliver them to the classroom mailbox.
Lunch, a 45-minute nap and more lessons would complete a typical day for Preston's only preschool class, a state-mandated integrated class of special education and regular education students.
The class is limited to 15 students, so after accommodating students with special needs, the remaining slots are filled through a lottery, with parents paying fees on a sliding income scale.
That could change under a new plan to offer preschool to all town 4-year-old children in a full-day program. Estimated to enroll about 39 students, the program would cost about $200,000 in the 2014-15 school budget. The school board is expected to vote on the full budget Feb. 10.
This week, the school hosted open house mornings, inviting interested parents and town and school officials to visit the preschool class.
"We're starting early to prepare them for kindergarten and beyond," said preschool teacher Gloria Berek, who has taught all elementary school grades in Preston during her 29-year career. "The teachers in this district work really hard to have students succeed. We think we have a quality program. We see the successes in kindergarten. We want to open that up to more students."
The proposal has prompted some debate already. Several parents and early grade teachers sent letters of support and spoke at Board of Finance and school board meetings.
A letter in response from Board of Finance member Norman Gauthier angered Hope Toland, a Preston parent of a 3-year-old and a Montville kindergarten teacher. In her letter, Toland supported universal preschool "so no 4-year-old has to be turned down a public school education."
Gauthier wrote back thanking her for her input and calling universal preschool "a bulldozer that will not be stopped." He noted President Obama's and the state's push to expand preschool. Gauthier cited studies questioning the academic benefit of starting school so early.
"There are many influential people who want to take children away from parental control and turn them over to government control as early as possible," Gauthier wrote. "This is where we are going and there is no way of stopping it."
Toland said she was "almost offended" that a Board of Finance member would write such a letter to a town resident.
"Getting a letter that says I am giving my child to the government and that there is no benefit was really shocking to me," Toland said.
Gauthier, who visited the preschool program Tuesday, said he did not mean to offend anyone. He referred to a January 2013 brief by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, that cited a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study and concluded federally funded Head Start "failed to improve academic outcomes for the children it was designed to help."
"It's a great benefit for working mothers," Gauthier said. "I don't think it's great for the kids. I'll probably support it, simply because it's a great program for working mothers, and they are taxpayers in town. If enough people are willing to pay for it, it will pass."
Preston Superintendent John Welch disputed the claim that the program would lose its academic benefit over time.
Welch said while the Heritage Foundation report argued that Head Start was ineffective, the report's conclusion that states should be allowed to divert federal Head Start dollars to private preschool programs showed the foundation wasn't negating the value of preschool.
"On that final point, I would argue that there is nothing special or unique about 'private' and that Preston Public Schools, a public entity, is perfectly capable of creating a meaningful program," Welch wrote in a response sent to town officials.
Preston's kindergarten and early childhood education teachers said in the classroom, the difference in children who attended preschool and those who didn't is striking.
About 45 percent of Preston kindergarten students have had no preschool experience. Kindergarten teacher Arline McCullen said many of those students don't know how to sit in an orderly manner, raise their hands to speak, transition from one activity to the next or walk in line.
Academically, some don't know numbers, letters, shapes, colors or the words that would help them behaviorally - such as "sit next to," or "stand behind."
Meanwhile, kindergarten has become much more difficult. Kindergarten students learn to count to 100, do basic addition and subtraction, count by 10s and learn the difference between a trapezoid and a hexagram.
They learn to read books with four or five lines per page, and analyze stories, such as identify characters, storylines and conflicts. They write four or five lines of stories in their own journals.
The new Common Core curriculum calls for even more stringent language arts requirements, the teachers said.
Preston preschool teaching assistants Beth Bonosconi and Lisa Barile both became certified as early childhood education teaching assistants in preparation for the changes.
Preston parents of children who will turn 4 by Jan. 1, 2015, are asked to contact Preston Veterans' Memorial School Principal Raymond Bernier at (860) 887-3113 to help school officials plan for a proposal to offer preschool free of charge to all Preston 4-year-olds. This would not be formal registration.