Rae C. Stedman Elementary School (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Petersburg School District will open a preschool this fall. It will be the only pre-K school run by the school district and will focus on special education students but other students will be able to enroll as well.

There are already a few preschools in Petersburg run by different non-profits. But the school district hasn’t run a preschool until now. The new school will be housed inside the Rae C. Stedman Elementary building. It will be free for special education students ages three to five but will also enroll other non-special ed students for a fee.

“So, this is kind of a pilot year,” said Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter, who spoke about the preschool at the last school board meeting. “We do have flexibility within it; to look at the numbers and make the program look like what we want it to be.”

The district already serves 47 special education students preschool through 5th grade who need specialized instruction.  Kludt-Painter says the preschool will streamline services for those that are pre-K housing them all under one roof. They’ll keep the district’s early childhood special education teacher, Barb Marifern, who currently visits the pre-K students at several locations around town.

“That’s a wide breadth for one person to manage,” she said. “And as needs increase and expand, it’s becoming pretty unmanageable and not as efficient as it should be.”

The elementary school will also require a new special education teacher to be hired, which the district had been needing and budgeting for, for a few years already.  

School board President Sarah Holmgrain says the district has a good relationship with the current preschools and hopes the new school will help them too.

“I know some of the other preschools in town have had long wait lists in the past so it might be alleviating the pressure on them,” Holmgrain said. “Hopefully, it will just be a compliment. We don’t want to be a competition; we want to be a compliment to what’s already being done.”

Besides special education, the district is also pursuing the preschool to address the upcoming Alaska Reads Act. It’s still moving through the Legislature but it’s expected to be approved in some form. It would require all elementary schools to have preschool programs with certified teachers as well as other requirements to get kids proficient in reading by the third grade.

Kludt-Painter told the school board that having an in-school special needs preschool is a model that’s used throughout the state. School Board Member, Megan Litster, echoed that and said that it benefits the special ed students and their families.

“You can address  these needs for three, four, and five-year-olds and then enter kindergarten or first grade without an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] anymore,” Litster said. “That’s ultimately the goal; that kids can be learning right along with their peers.”

The school district is still working out funding details for the new school but it will likely have different sources. Kludt-Painter says some pre-K, special ed students receive funding from the state while other money could come from Reads Act allocations and possible grants.

“We’re feeling good about it. It’s nice to finally take the plunge and we’re just going to see where it goes,” Kludt-Painter said. 

Some details are still being worked out like whether the preschool will run for four or five days a week and what the hours will be each day. Also, how much the cost will be for students who aren’t special education.