Saturday, May 25, 2024

The first day of school at a Cambridge private preschool in 2007. (Photo: Nabeel Hyatt via Flickr)

It would be a surprise to the city if it were advised to make Cambridge Public Schools the sole provider of universal preschool, but such advice would still be heard in time to shape the final giant campus reconstruction project planned, the Tobin School and Vassal Lane Upper School near Fresh Pond.

The City Council appropriated $117,000 on Monday for a study of how to get all of Cambridge’s 4-year-olds in preschool, a long-delayed goal of councillors and School Committee members who see the current model of uneven preschool attendance as damaging some students’ achievement later in life. Getting all 3-year-olds in preschool is expected to follow.

A report on successful models Cambridge could follow is due back in late April or in May, said Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services.

But while consultants will come up with proposals by looking at ways universal preschool is done around the country, Semonoff was pretty sure what they’d be coming back with: “For the most part, all the places around the country that have expanded access for 4-year-olds have done it through a combination of schools and community and charter school programs. There aren’t so many places that do [city-based preschools],” she said.

A year-old request

That gibed with how vice mayor Jan Devereux read the city manager’s request to fund the study – that its goal of “expanding access” could just mean more of what the city is already doing, which includes a network of private preschools.

“In the past we’ve proceeded very cautiously because we have this ecosystem and we haven’t necessarily wanted to disrupt it and take all the preschool students out of existing programs to put them all in one big building and do it ourselves. We’ve been looking at ways to support this by training teachers so the quality improves overall and subsidizing some students so they have access,” Devereux said. “It wasn’t clear to me this might be changing that strategy.”

It represented a change in tone from a year ago, when councillors and School Committee members met at a roundtable with a sense of urgency after a wait list for early education classrooms got as high as 800 families before being frozen and the district reported adding only 34 seats in two years and scholarships for 22 more students at existing programs. Word that consultants would generate a report followed studies from 2011 and 2015.

The study would clear up debate over whether to build a couple of giant centers for early childhood education, with the Tobin eyed as one by then councillor Leland Cheung, perhaps matched with one in East Cambridge or at the Longfellow Building swing space on Broadway.

Tobin campus project  

Now councillor Alanna Mallon had one eye on preparations to rebuild the Tobin campus and another on the universal preschool report, and wasn’t sure they were lining up.

The Tobin project is estimated at $220 million, with classes of students leaving the campus built in 1971 for the last time in June 2020, Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson. The city will move in and look at environmental cleanup of the site before teardown and eventual reconstruction; room for nearly 250 additional students and even more room to grow is expected, since other campuses around Cambridge have felt squeezed even after renovations. The project is still expected in recent city documents to be substantially complete in time for a fall 2024 opening.

Seven design firms have already submitted proposals, and one will be hired at least by the end of the year, leading to a roughly six-month feasibility study that will address “needs, desires, wishes, even,” Peterson said, making the decision point for the size and structure of the Tobin “maybe toward the end of next year.”

Mallon was concerned that student population growth on the campus had been described to potential designers as being among middle schoolers, but Peterson said not to worry: “We made an assumption at that point that we were adding a number of general classrooms we needed, including the possibility of more preschool spaces,” Peterson said. “We could build a much larger building on that space and things would fit.”