Richard Tomko, the superintendent of the Belleville, N.J., public schools, believes that expanding the early education pipeline will buffer schools against enrollment loss and academic challenges as students get older.
The district opened the in-person Hornblower Early Childhood center for 3- and 4-year-olds in 2020, in the teeth of the pandemic, and has since expanded early-childhood programs to 36 classrooms across six schools.
The early-childhood center provided in-person instruction using a curriculum focused on building creativity, critical thinking, and social skills. General education enrollment for preschool has risen from less than 8 percent of eligible children in the 2018-19 school year to nearly 87 percent in 2022-23. Belleville serves a majority of low-income students and nearly 70 percent of them Hispanic.
While K-12 enrollment in New Jersey public schools dropped since the pandemic began shuttering schools in 2020, Belleville’s rose 5 percent, from 4,477 in 2018-19 to 4,701 in 2021-22.
Tomko, a 2023 Leaders To Learn From honoree, spoke to Education Week about how the district is leveraging its early-childhood foundation.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide to expand preschool?
When I got here, fewer than 1 in 10 of our kids of preschool age were in preschool, and for most it was only half day. We know that all the research out there says missing early education really puts kids behind. Now, we have almost 90 percent of our kids in full-day preschool. That’s doing wonders for the whole community. Parents can work, and there will especially be benefits for the school district in years to come.
What were the biggest challenges to expanding early-childhood education?
I didn’t even have a preschool director. We had to start that department. I have a great school board and we respect each other, but you sit and you talk and they’re like, “How are you gonna do all this?” I think a lot of superintendents get defensive when there’s back-and-forth or disagreements with the board. But that’s not how it works. Everything needs to be researched and vetted so they know that what I’m doing is, you know, for the kids. And if it doesn’t work, then we don’t do it anymore.
We don’t really tie ourselves to anything permanently unless we’re sure it’s going to work. Everything is research-based, and we do something because it has been successful, and I can answer questions from parents and community members that this will really help our students be successful in the future.
How did you pay for it?
Over the past four years, we’ve generated close to $16 million in preschool expansion aid. That’s from state grants, partnering with local independent contractors, and community support.
We don’t really tie ourselves to anything permanently unless we’re sure it’s going to work.
What’s next for the preschool project?
We do everything here systemically, so the next step is, how do we make sure kids go to preschool? How do we identify parents’ needs from the start and make sure children get appropriate care?
We actually just approved the creation of a “cradle” program [beginning in January], where we will start to partner with parents as soon as they find out they are having a child. We want to make sure they get the services they need—from prenatal support to English-as-second-language programs [for parents]—so that we are partnering with parents with children from age zero to 3, and then they come right into our preschool.
Throughout the year, Education Week will feature Leaders To Learn From alumni to share their solutions to pressing challenges in education. What topics should we delve into in the future? Which past leader would you like to hear from? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com with your ideas.