Preschool lottery system flawed, parent says

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Vickie Durgin would love for her son Hayden, 2, to attend the Early Essential Education preschool program at Allen Brook School next year.

The part-time preschool is free to participants. And the buses that pick up and drop off the children are convenient for working parents like her, the Williston resident said.

But when she called two weeks ago to add Hayden’s name to the lottery list, she was told the deadline had passed, though the lottery wasn’t scheduled until after March 9.

“I was told I was the fourth or fifth person already turned away,” Durgin said. When she asked where the deadline was advertised, Durgin said, she was told it was on the school’s Web site.

“How was I supposed to know to go to the Web site to find this out?” Durgin said. “If it’s a free program to taxpayers, then everybody should be allowed the opportunity to have their child in (the lottery).”

Students meet for 2.5 hours three days a week – either mornings or afternoons, but EEE, as it is known informally in school circles, is not a typical preschool program.

The purpose of EEE is to provide special education services to children ages three to five who have developmental delays in speech, language, motor, and/or social/emotional skills. In order to best serve those students, however, same-age peers without disabilities also are included in the classroom. About half of the more than 50 enrolled students have disabilities, and half do not. About a dozen additional students with disabilities are served at home or through one-day playgroups.

“Peers” are chosen by lottery since there are more parents interested than there are spaces, according to Carter Smith, Williston schools director of special education. For the 2007-08 school year, 40 students are signed up for a lottery of 14 spaces. (The remaining peer spaces go to returning peers who have not yet entered kindergarten; once a peer is accepted, the spot is guaranteed the following year as well.)

Smith said in the 10 to 15 years he’s been involved with the program the school always has advertised through word of mouth. He added, however, that from a “fairness standpoint” that might need to change.

“We may decide to change our process in subsequent years,” Smith said this week. “I know there have been some people who’ve called and said they didn’t know (the lottery list) was closed.”

Smith said the level of interest in the program among parents of potential peers speaks not just to the program’s reputation of quality, but also suggests there might be a need for more such programs in the community. Money alone couldn’t be the driver, he said, since the EEE program is only 7.5 hours a week; any child needing care outside of those hours would need his or her parents to pay for a full-time daycare slot anyway.

Durgin agrees it is not money that drove her interest in Hayden attending EEE. A daycare provider, Durgin already is home with her kids.

“I want my son to listen to somebody else, to follow somebody else’s directions,” she said. “Here I’m the teacher, I’m the person who sets the boundaries … So for me it’s … to know he’s ready because he’s following somebody else’s directions.”

Durgin said she does not want the school to reopen the lottery process for Hayden, but she does want the school to consider how to better advertise its availability in the future.

“I don’t know how many other people are out there that know they’ve missed (the deadline),” Durgin said.