Clark BOE Cancels Plans for Early Childhood Learning Center at St. Agnes School Site

Clark Board of Education held a special meeting on August 5, 2014   Credits: Susan Bonnell

CLARK, NJ – During an at-times emotional Clark Board of Education meeting held Tuesday evening, it was announced that the Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC) that had been planned for the former St. Agnes School site would not be opening. Pre-K and kindergarten classes would instead continue to be held at their respective elementary schools. 

Board Attorney Maggie Miller made the announcement:

“Due to unforeseen delays in coming to an agreement with St. Agnes Church, it has become evident that time and costs have rendered the occupancy of St. Agnes impossible by the start of school in September. The Board has spent a great amount of time weighing its options and considering what is in the best interest of the students, taxpayers and the entire Clark community. As a result, it is with a heavy heart that the board has decided that it will not be entering into a lease agreement with St. Agnes.”

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The announcement was met with a round of applause by parents in the audience who had not supported the district’s plan for the center.

Miller explained that the district would instead focus on the transformation of the Frank K. Hehnly and Valley Road School libraries into “21st century media centers.”  Technology, Basic Skills, Gifted and Talented, English as a Second Language and speech classes would be shifted to the media centers. Rooms currently being used for those classes would be reclaimed as traditional classroom space. 

A literacy enrichment pilot program that has been used in the lower grades would be extended into upper grades with the library teachers collaborating with classroom teachers in each individual classroom.

During the public session of the meeting, concerned parents asked a number of follow-up questions regarding logistics of the new plan and the start of school for the Pre-K and kindergarten students. 

Before and aftercare pricing for the preschool program would remain at the newly quoted levels. Program pricing had been adjusted to fall into line with pricing for the upper grades. A formal curriculum that includes free-play time is in place for the program.

Personnel questions focused on the presence of an extra paraprofessional in each kindergarten classroom and the hiring of a new preschool teacher for the Frank K. Hehnly School. The paraprofessionals would have been required at St. Agnes to compensate for a lack of in-classroom bathrooms. A final determination will be made pending a needs assessment. The district is currently interviewing candidates for the preschool teacher position. 

Several parents expressed concerns and frustrations about ongoing confusion created by the potential creation of the ECLC. Especially troubling to some was the welcome letter that had been sent to parents before the lease agreement had been finalized. Other questions posed to the council involved school hours, smart boards, and a promised open house. 

Board member Laura Caliguire addressed the parents’ concerns and expressed the feelings of the entire board about the ECLC when she said, “We truly believed in our hearts that it was the best thing for the students and for all of the children in the district. Whenever we’re making any kind of decisions we always have to keep in mind what is best for the children and at the same time being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers. That’s what we’ve done.  None of us had anticipated any of this happening and none of us ever wanted to deceive anyone or confuse anyone or make anyone feel displaced. We’re sorry for all the back and forth, it was never meant to be that way. ”  She continued, “I understand that it is frustrating. They (the children) will be fine. They’ll go, they’ll be happy, they’ll make their friends and they’ll play and it will be ok. We have made sure that no matter what building they’re in, they’ll have the best teachers. They’re going to get the best education.”

Parents were referred to the district website for information about school hours and the upcoming open houses.  They were encouraged to contact Superintendent Kenneth Knops or Assistant Superintendent Ed Grande with any other questions or concerns they might have.

While the primary focus of the public comments was on the ECLC, concerned parents also raised questions about the district's Special Education Department and the ongoing road project at Valley Road School.  

Mayor Sal Bonaccorso addressed the Board to provide an update on the VRS project.  He assured them that the project was moving along on schedule. He indicated that public concerns and questions should be sent via email to the superintendent who would then forward them to the township. 

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