BRIGANTINE — A few colorful, plastic playsets sit empty outside the white building on 33rd Street where Sea Tots, the city’s only early childhood learning center, has served local families for 27 years.

Owner and teacher Joanne Kuchinsky has provided daycare services and taught preschool classes weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. since she first opened the center. Her classroom was typically busy with up to 29 children ages 2½ to 6 years old.

But now, with only two children enrolled in her full-day program and another two enrolled in her half-day preschool sessions, Kuchinsky said she can’t afford to stay open for the upcoming year.

The low enrollment at Sea Tots comes after the Brigantine school district announced plans to expand its preschool program starting Oct. 1.

Unless her situation improves, Kuchinsky said Sea Tots’ last day will be Friday, Sept. 28.

“For me, it’s like ripping my heart out,” she said. “I wasn’t closing my doors. I’ve kind of been forced into it, and they’ve taken it away from me.”

Like several districts in South Jersey, Brigantine was awarded funding from the state Department of Education to grow its preschool program.

Over the next year, the $720,684 grant Brigantine received will go toward offering space for 72 students ages 3 and 4 in free classes held from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. As of Sept. 18, Brigantine has 48 children enrolled in its expanded preschool program set to start Oct. 1.

“This expansion aid gave districts, such as ours, the opportunity to increase the number of children served, the length of the program day offered, and the quality of the program,” interim Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti wrote in an email.

According to Cappelluti, expanding the preschool program will benefit residents.

“The particular curriculum used in the full-day program organizes space, time, and activities to be in sync with children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical abilities,” she wrote. “Simply put, it is just a wonderful place for young children to learn together.”

The Preschool Education Expansion Aid grant the city received allows for public schools to partner with local businesses.

Brigantine North School reached out to Kuchinsky while applying for the grant in July to ask whether she was willing to partner with them. They informed her the grant could allow her to receive $14,144 per student per year for each child who would attend Sea Tots.

However, partnering with the district for the one-year grant program meant Sea Tots would have to make some changes.

According to the grant, Sea Tots would have to reduce its 29 available spaces to 15. The private learning center would also have to reduce its daily hours of operation from 10 to six, matching those of the Brigantine Elementary School.

If Kuchinsky wanted to continue morning and evening daycare hours, she said she would have to hire additional aides for those specific hours.

Kuchinsky also said that under the grant’s teaching certification requirements she would have to hire a new teacher and more aides, provide salaries and benefits comparable with those of district teachers and change her curriculum.

Along with these changes, Kuchinsky expressed concern the district might not fill the proposed spaces and questioned whether the funding was guaranteed.

Ultimately, she informed the district before the grant was submitted that she did not want to participate.

“It just was not a good offer to me,” Kuchinsky said.

Cappelluti also said in a telephone interview that she had hoped that partnership would work out.

Still, Cappelluti emphasized the importance of an expansive public school program.

“However, if they choose not to participate, it should not be the reason for the district not to provide these services to all of our community 3- and 4-year-old children.”

Brigantine resident Allison Olive’s daughter is enrolled in Sea Tots and said she does not intend to send her daughter to the Brigantine district program. She said she’d like her to stay at Sea Tots if possible.

“My daughter loves going to Sea Tots, and she loves everyone there,” Olive said. “The whole staff is amazing, and I really trust them with my child.”

Although she feels forced to close, Kuchinsky said she’s not ready for retirement.

“I’ve worked my heart out to help this community,” she said. “We’re very good to the children and their families, and that’s how I want to go out.”

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