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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—At two consecutive meetings of the New Brunswick Board of Education, Business Administrator and Board Secretary Rich Jannarone confirmed that despite, “aggressive” promotion efforts, enrollment for the city's preschool program is down.
New Brunswick offers universal preschool to residents, meaning city residents can send their children ages 3 or4 free of charge to one of the 20 providers that offer anywhere from one to twelve 15-student classrooms during the school year.
In a city with a 55% Hispanic population that has been steadily growing, according to the US Census, some speculate that the dropoff in enrollment is a response to fears of harsher immigration enforcement.
“The political environment here may have something to do with it. We don't know,” said Board President Dale Caldwell.
Among the city's 20 preschool providers are six public school facilities owned and operated by the district. Fourteen others are run by private organizations including the Puerto Rican Action Board and Catholic Charities.
Currently, according to the program's website, the city has the capacity to enroll up to 1,485 students in preschool.
Jannarone estimated that by mid-July 2016 the city had “1,260 or 1,270” enrolled in preschool and by mid-July 2017 the district had about 100 less.
But according to the budgets posted on the Board of Education's website, which appear to include only the fourteen contracted preschool providers, the city had just 1,040 pupils enrolled in preschool in 2016, and estimated 1,020 for this year.
This follows a downward trend that began in 2015, when the city had 1,137 kids in the program.
The Board refused repeated questions, calls and emails requesting an official number for this year's total enrollment. The New Brunswick Department of Early Childhood Education was also unavailable for comment.
The decline could mean less money for the state-funded preschool program.
At the August 15 BOE meeting, Jannarone said “The potential impact is that in the [2018-2019] school year we will have to make decision on what cuts will be made to the program.”
However, the budgets available on the BOE website show that the board spent $21,547,005 on preschool in 2015, $22,791,220 in 2016, and projects spending $23,167,701 this year.
The same budget shows that while the state gave $20,349,572 in 2016, the city expects to get $20,860,224 this year.
According to Superintendent Aubrey Johnson, the district has been trying to raise awareness of the program.
“The district has aggressively tried to send out additional fliers,” Johnson said. “We've been more aggressive in terms of reaching parents.”
Whether or not the outreach was extensive enough to be effective remains to be seen.
“[The district has] advertised everywhere that we feel is appropriate,” said Jannarone.
Jose Montes, the Director of the Puerto Rican Action Board, which runs 42 of the preschool classrooms for the city, seemed unaware of the district's efforts.
“Whatever the district is doing, we have to enhance that,” he said. “We've been going to salons, we've been going to the library. And I will tell you that right now, we are the only ones doing it.”
According to Montes, “This past year…the last semester of the school year, it was the sociopolitical dimension of people being afraid they would be picked up by ICE. Now, it wasn't really the case that this was pervasive in New Brunswick, but it doesn't matter, because ultimately those issues are very personal.”
And Montes said it's not just preschool enrollment that is down as a result of these fears.
The Service Access Center and the Boaz Immigration and Counseling Program, both of which provide immigrants with legal and mental health services, have seen fewer participants.
“We know that this community has a larger number per capita of folks who are undocumented than in other places and so these federal policies will be felt more by people in this community,” Montes said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has targeted the city before, though until recently, without help from local law enforcement. In June, the Middlesex County Sheriffs handed a man to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the New Brunswick Police Department joined ICE agents in a cocaine bust in the city.
That being said, despite strong anti-immigration rhetoric and an upsurge in white nationalism, the Trump administration has been deporting people at a slower rate than the Obama administration. However, this may only be due to Trump's inability to make legislative changes rather than lack of will.
Preschool registration remains open until October 15 for all children that are age 3 or 4 by that date. More information is available at the district's website.