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School officials are welcoming Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget proposal to fund universal prekindergarten programs, citing research that show children in such programs do better when they enter kindergarten and often throughout their academic careers. The academic boost is especially true for children from low-income backgrounds, many of whom are exposed to fewer words and less time reading than their more affluent peers.

As part of his budget unveiled this afternoon, Cuomo proposed $1.5 billion in state spending over five years to make pre-K available for all districts in the state.

Donald A. Ogilvie, district superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES, said most districts in Erie County do not have full-day, universal pre-K.

“Efforts have been made over the years to development universal pre-K, but at this point, very few districts have it,” he said.

At Sidway Elementary on Grand Island, Principal Denise Dunbar currently offers two sessions of half-day prekindergarten with one teacher in one classroom. There are 18 4-year-olds enrolled in each session.

Dunbar said her district is “very supportive” of more funding for universal prekindergarten – or UPK – that would help it serve more than just those 36 kids. “We know UPK works, and we know we need more of it,” she said. “Our district would fully embrace it.”

Pre-K enrollment at Sidway is determined by a lottery. Typically 100 to 125 families vie for the 36 spots, Dunbar said. Full-day, universal pre-K would mean those other families could be served, she said, adding that the program would need a bigger building, more teachers and a support staff.

Meanwhile, school administrators have done a lot of long-term data on students who went through Sidway’s pre-K program and those who did not.

“We know that the program works well for children,” she said.

The advantage of pre-K is that it teaches youngsters literacy skills, math skills and social and emotional skills. But most importantly, Dunbar said, “it gets kids used to what school is all about. You set the students up for success.”

The Buffalo Public Schools have had a full-day, universal prekindergarten program since the late 1960s, said Kathleen Fennie, supervisor of the district’s Universal Prekindergarten Department.

“We have at least two full-day, pre-K classrooms in every single elementary school” she said, except the former Pinnacle Charter school, which the district just took over last fall.

The district has 2,055 students in its full-day, universal prekindergarten program. Nevertheless, it has a waiting list of about 200 students, said Fennie. She said the school system would use the funding proposed by Cuomo to expand the program and whittle that list.

Even before the governor’s announcement today, district officials had obtained a state grant to build additional pre-K classrooms at Martin Luther King Multicultural School 39, West Hertel Academy School 94, Waterfront Elementary School 95 and Early Childhood Center School 61. That effort would add 125 seats to the program.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com