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Budget cuts end innovative preschool program

Elias Vargas, 3, adjusts his cap after Juliana Sanchez, a 17-year-old junior, helped him before the final preschool graduation at East Bay Little School as budget cuts are forcing the program’s elimination. The program cost $40 a month, a fraction of what parents pay at traditional day care facilities.

KEN HELLE | Times

Elias Vargas, 3, adjusts his cap after Juliana Sanchez, a 17-year-old junior, helped him before the final preschool graduation at East Bay Little School as budget cuts are forcing the program’s elimination. The program cost $40 a month, a fraction of what parents pay at traditional day care facilities.

GIBSONTON — Fifteen boys and girls dressed in caps and gowns made history when they lined up on stage recently at East Bay High School.

The children, ages 3 to 5, were the last ever to graduate from East Bay's Little School, a preschool run by high school students.

"It is not going to exist next year," said Mara Nivens, the instructor who oversees the teens in East Bay's early childhood education program.

The six classes Nivens teaches are being eliminated to save money, said Ken Otero, deputy superintendent of Hillsborough County schools.

The district is facing a $15-million budget cut.

The East Bay program aims to prepare students for careers in child care, teaching and other fields that require close interaction with children.

A key component was the preschool, open three mornings a week to children from the Gibsonton area. The cost was $40 a month, a fraction of what parents pay elsewhere.

"It was so much education for less money than any other place that I looked," said Jennifer Rees, whose daughter Morgan attended the preschool this year. "It's a shame. They will be missed."

A similar program at Hillsborough High School in Tampa also is being cut, said Joyce Conner-Eary, supervisor of family and consumer sciences for the school district.

Schools are given a certain number of teacher positions each year, and principals decide how to use them.

Not only program cut

Programs that have the least demand are the first to go, Otero said.

"Because our budget has been reduced, we don't have the luxury of supporting classes that are under capacity," he said. "As your dollars become leaner, you have less opportunity to do that."

Other technical programs are on the chopping block. Agriculture classes at Mulrennan, Webb and Van Buren middle schools are being eliminated.

Technical programs compete with other electives for students and that makes it hard to fill classes, said Jim Jeffries, supervisor of agribusiness programs for Hillsborough County schools.

Remedial classes aimed at helping students do better on the FCAT are a big factor, he said.

The early childhood program taught skills such as organization and planning that could be applied to all facets of life, said Nivens, who will be teaching other classes at East Bay next year.

The students also could become certified to run their own preschools.

Similar licensing can cost as much as $1,400 if done through a technical school, Nivens said.

The little graduates had no idea they were at the end of an era. They fidgeted and giggled as they sang songs and waited for their names to be called.

One threw up, sending the high school students into a flurry of cleaning and wiping.

"This class proves that there always has to be a backup plan," Nivens said.

Times staff writer Jessica Vandervelde contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be reached at jwesner@sptimes.com or

(813) 661-2439.

Budget cuts end innovative preschool program 05/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 4:00pm]
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