GCSD to cut ties with Victory Child Care pre-K

Victory Riedy, Victory Child Care

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff 
Victory Riedy, founder of Victory Child Care, works with a child at her pre-kindergarten program in downtown Albany in 2016, the year she opened a program in Guilderland.

GUILDERLAND — A public uproar four years ago at the suggestion of closing one of the district’s five elementary schools because of declining enrollment led instead to filling empty classrooms with a private pre-kindergarten program. Now the district needs those classrooms back as enrollment is increasing.

The arrival of Victory Child Care’s pre-kindergarten program into three of the district’s five schools in 2016 was heralded as an innovation that would bring in money while filling as many as six empty classrooms across the three schools — Altamont and Pine Bush elementary schools and Farnsworth Middle School. An expert hired by the district had listed six options, all but one of which included closing an elementary school. Committees were formed to consider other uses for the empty classrooms, and the school board settled on pre-kindergarten.

Before coming to Guilderland, Victory Child Care had an established pre-K program in downtown Albany, at the Leo F. O’Brien Building on Clinton Avenue, which is still in operation. Victory Child Care did not return calls and an email asking for comment, and an employee who answered the phone at the pre-K classroom in the middle school said, “We have no comment for any of this.”

District officials announced at a recent school board meeting that its three-year agreement with Victory Child Care will come to an end this summer and that they preferred not to renew it; the contract could have been extended for up to two additional years, at the option of the school district.

At each of the elementary schools involved — Pine Bush and Altamont — the district has seen increased enrollment, Neil Sanders told the board. Sanders is the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

Board President Christine Hayes said she did not think a formal vote would be necessary. The board could simply let the agreement lapse, she said, adding that if anyone had any questions or comments after having a chance to read through the original agreement with Victory Child Care as well as comments made by Farnsworth Middle School Principal Michael Laster to the school board’s Business Practices Committee, those concerns could be taken up by the full board before the contract’s end.

The pre-K program will continue until summer in its one classroom at the middle school.

Sanders described for The Enterprise the factors that had changed over the years since the start of the agreement in fall 2016.

Initially, he said, Victory Child Care had been contracted to rent up to two classrooms in each of Pine Bush Elementary, Altamont Elementary, and Farnsworth Middle School. Instead, Victory Child Care started out with five, renting just one at Pine Bush and two each at the others.

The arrangement continued for only one year at Altamont, Sanders said. A new kindergarten section was added at Altamont after the start of the 2017-18 school year, in response to requests by parents concerned about class sizes, and the district and Victory Child Care agreed that the district would take back the two classrooms in that elementary school.

The issue, he said, was with how those sections were going to be set up and the ability to have those kindergarten sections near one another. “From an instructional point of view, it’s better to have those together,” he said, referring to kindergarten sections.

The other spot that would have been available to Victory Child Care at Altamont Elementary was in a higher-grade classroom that did not make sense for a pre-K program, he said.

Pine Bush has grown more than other catchment areas in the district, Sanders said, so that, this school year the district had to take back the one classroom there being used by Victory Child Care.

“They had a lull there, and then it turned around, necessitating more classrooms,” Sanders said. “I wouldn’t say that’s been universal,” he said, referring to growth in enrollment, “but it certainly happened at Pine Bush.”

Class size was also a factor at Pine Bush, Sanders said. “If you’re up near the upper limits, and then you get additional kids —”

Sanders sent The Enterprise a chart showing that there had been a total of six sections of kindergarten and first grade at Pine Bush in 2015-16, but that the number of total sections in those two grades had grown by 2018-19 to eight.

At Altamont, as of 2015-16, there were a total of six sections among the three lower grades of kindergarten through grade two. By 2017-18, the total number of sections in those three grades had grown to nine.

There is now just one pre-K classroom at Farnsworth Middle School, but it doesn’t particularly mesh well with that school, Sanders told the school board in December. The pre-K starts earlier than the school day, and some parents drop children off very early, which the district needs to accommodate and monitor. The pre-K program requires a special play area and modified bathrooms and requires school officials to avoid drills during nap times. The pre-K program is usually held even during snow days, which means custodial staff must make sure entrances are cleared, Sanders told the board.

Victory Child Care is currently using what was an art classroom, due to that classroom’s size and its proximity to both an outside exit and a bathroom. But the school’s loss of an art classroom, Laster told The Enterprise, limits the number of art classes it can schedule at one time.

This is especially inconvenient because the middle school gained a Board of Cooperative Educational Services self-contained program this year for students who are considered medically fragile, Laster said.

Those BOCES students, he added, are age-appropriate for the middle school and benefit from taking all of the same Encore classes as others, such as art, physical education, and family consumer sciences, Laster said; the extra classroom will make it easier to accommodate the BOCES program more effectively.

Having that art classroom available would also make it easier for all students to use the art department’s kiln, Laster said.

Were district officials glad they hadn’t taken the expert’s advice and closed a school, The Enterprise asked.

“There was a recommendation,” Sanders said. “There was no serious research on the part of the school district to close Altamont Elementary. It was an option on the part of an expert. It was not explored.”

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