‘A really big part of our lives’: State commits $15.5M to early education and care programs 


Staff Writer

Published: 08-16-2023 11:14 PM

LEVERETT — Upon moving to Shutesbury in 2017, Samantha Spisiak discovered a weekly story time at M.N. Spear Memorial Library, often bringing her toddler to the get-together with other families.

“This has been a really big part of our lives,” Spisiak said as she joined several other parents and caregivers at the Leverett Public Library Wednesday morning, where their children could play with magnetic toys and have books read to them, and enjoy music, and movement, with musicians Tom and Laurie leading an “End of Summer Hurrah.”

As her child, Olson Reagan, now 5, gets ready to begin kindergarten, her other children, Abel Reagan, 4, and Etta Reagan, 2, continue to be part of story time and play groups put on by the School Union 28 Community Network for Children, programs that have been essential to their well-being and development.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” Spisiak said.

Families also were at the library to meet with Massachusetts Early Education and Care Commissioner Amy Kershaw, who announced on behalf of the Healey-Driscoll administration that $15.5 million in Coordinated Family and Community Engagement grants would be coming to local school districts and nonprofits so such child development services and resources can continue to be provided to families with young children. These programs are designed to support child well-being, development and school readiness, in the state’s most rural towns.

“What you’ve built here is so incredible,” Kershaw said.

Gillian Budine, who has coordinated the program for the towns that make up the school union — Leverett, Shutesbury, Erving, Wendell and New Salem — for 27 years, said programs emphasizing connections, friendships and readiness for entering school are aimed primarily at children from birth through age 5.

Budine said the Community Network for Children has positively impacted families. “The resilience and health of our families is crucial to our local community,” Budine said.

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While the state is supporting this with an $83,789 grant, $14,000 is also being provided by Union 28 to support the play groups, story time and other activities that build children’s confidence and improve their gross motor skills. There is also the free closet program, where families and caregivers can access diapers, children’s clothing, coats, hats and books. Financial support is provided through local cultural councils and grants from other institutions, such as the New Salem Academy.

Without the support from the state budget, though, there would be challenges for families, Budine said, as there are only four licensed child care options in the five communities.

Budine said that all programs are free and most are held weekdays, with an occasional Sunday program and some in the evenings. Most are drop in, though some do ask for reservations. And while they are targeted at families in the small towns, families from larger communities, such as Amherst and Montague, do take part on occasion.

Next month, as the school year begins, Tales and Tunes will be held most Mondays in Shutesbury and most Tuesdays in New Salem, and play groups will be held in Wendell and Leverett on Wednesdays.

Like Spisiak, Nathan Longcope came to Shutesbury in 2017, bringing then-18-month old Beatrice to a play group at the Shutebury library. There, he made instant connections, mostly with other stay-at-home fathers, and his daughter familiarized herself with the school she would attend. Now 21-month old Matilda is also benefiting.

“It’s been an incredible experience for our family,” Longcope said.

The state grants are going to 81 communities across the state, what Kershaw calls historic new investments to build a foundation to support families and meet the needs of small towns.

“It is so deeply embedded in the fabric of each community,” Kershaw said.

Before making the announcement, Kershaw, joined by state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Rep. Natalie Blais, whose districts include Leverett, and Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi, met with families to learn more about the needs. Her visit concluded with a conversation about some of the favorite books for parents to read with children, with suggestions such “On the Day You Were Born” by Debra Frasier, “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown and “The Bed Book” by Sylvia Plath.

But Kershaw said she also wanted to get suggestions about what state education leaders can do better in rural environments.

Longcope told her it is essential to have programs available all weekdays, as has been custom. “Five days a week was a lifesaver for me,” Longcope said.

Another suggested enough money go to support “more of a good thing.”

Union 28 Superintendent Jennifer Culkeen, who taught kindergarten classes for 20 years, said she has first-hand experience that the offerings will continue to provide the strong foundation children need to become well-functioning adults.

The support from the state comes with an additional $33,000 to continue the Parent-Child Plus Program, where once a week families get a home visit and one-on-one attention.

For Spisiak, this has meant early intervention for Etta, whose oral skills are already improving dramatically.

“She’s talking so much more,” Spisiak said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>