HINESBURG >> Vermont has become the first state to provide publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs to all 3- and 4-year-olds as of this month, state officials say.
The law requires Vermont communities to offer at least 10 hours a week of free, high quality preschool for 35 weeks per year to children in that age group. Previously, some districts offered publicly funded preschool voluntarily.
The 10 hours of free preschool has helped parents, like those whose children attend Annette's Preschool, in Hinesburg.
Adam Charlton and his wife wanted their then-4-year-old son, Oliver, to be in a school-like environment before he entered kindergarten. But, they said they couldn't have afforded it without the extra help.
"He learned a lot," Charlton said. "It's a great program and I'm super glad the state decided to pass that law. It's definitely helpful."
The office of Gov. Peter Shumlin says more than 70 percent of Vermont children under age 6 have working parents, so universal pre-K is critical to supporting working families.
"Preparing children to enter elementary school ready to learn is one of the best ways to set up our next generation for success," Shumlin, a Democrat, said.
The average weekly cost of childcare for pre-school aged children in a licensed center in Vermont in 2014 was $192, according to a survey by the Vermont Department for Children and Families. Annette's Preschool says the law cuts the costs.
Shumlin signed the law in 2014 and it went into effect July 1, but some communities implemented programs early. The programs include those operated by community programs, public schools, private early education and care programs and also, Head Start.
To qualify, programs must be licensed or registered by the Department for Children and Families and the curricula must be aligned with the state's early learning standards.
More than a quarter of schools with kindergartens implemented universal pre-K last school year, said the Vermont Agency of Education. The rest of Vermont's schools were expected to comply by the start of this month.
Victoria Ward, director of business and new programs at Annette's, said its new half-day program for 3- to 5-year-olds offered last year filled up quickly.
"What we found is that not only did we fully enroll the program, but that about 90 percent of those children, despite having been of preschool age before September, hadn't been in a pre-K setting before. So we were reaching a whole new audience," Ward said.
Maeghan Booska says the 10 free hours a week of her 3-year-old's full-day preschool program is a big help because the family recently bought their first home.
Otherwise, the family would have had to make some financial adjustments, she said.
"It would have been really difficult to pay for child care," she said.