Springfield, Mass. now offering free, universal, full-day pre-K

Organized school supplies such as markers, different crayons like red, green and black, in a preschool classroom in Springfield, Massachusetts.

School supplies in a preschool classroom in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Elizabeth Román / NEPM)

As she walked through the hallways of Balliet Pre-school, in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Thursday, Principal Jessica McCloskey visited several classrooms to greet students.

“We are so excited to get the school year started in this wonderful space,” said McCloskey, referring to the former elementary school on Seymour Avenue , which now serves as a preschool center.

Springfield school officials said the district is the first in Massachusetts to offer free, full-day pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Boston Public Schools have also expanded the district’s free pre-K program this year to include a limited number of spots for 3-year-olds.

Springfield Superintendent of Schools Daniel Warwick said the district has three locations dedicated to pre-K classrooms throughout the city, including Balliet. Every neighborhood school in the city also has at least one pre-K classroom.

“This has been 10 years of work. There are a lot of financial components and we had to acquire some properties to make this a possibility,” he said.

Warwick said the district will be reimbursed by the state. As a former elementary school teacher, he said he believes preschool sets students up for success.

“When students came to school without preschool, in an urban center especially, they start behind and it’s hard to catch them up,” he said.

School officials in Springfield, Massachusetts, tour the Balliet Pre-school center on the first day of school, on Sept. 8, 2022. (Elizabeth Román / NEPM)

McCloskey said students who participate in the program are better prepared for kindergarten.

“Being able to have them in school a full day allows them to use language, hear vocabulary, see the written word, hear books and even learn to read books,” she said.

The curriculum also incorporates science and technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Having them for a full day allows them to learn all of these things, but also leaves room for areas like music and physical education, so they can develop their gross motor skills,” McCloskey said.

The program currently has 1,880 students enrolled, although there are spots available for 2,000 children.

The initiative includes the hiring of more than 70 new staff members including 35 additional teachers.

McCloskey said the response from families has been overwhelming. Balliet currently has 13 classrooms and all are at capacity.

“The amount of enrollment that we have just shows that families are looking for full day preschool,” she said. “They see the benefit of it.”

This story was originally published by New England Public Media, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.