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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 13, 2008
GCSD backs full-day kindergarten if finances allow for $888K annual cost
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The school board here backs a move from half-day to full-day kindergarten if, as the school board president put it, “money wasn’t an object.”
With the board’s tentative go-ahead last Wednesday, the district will start planning for full-day kindergarten to begin in September.
Referencing the state’s fiscal crisis, Superintendent John McGuire said, “No matter how much we agree that this is the direction we want to go, it may not be the year and we’ll have to decide that as part of our comprehensive budget development process.”
The economic picture became more dire this Wednesday when the governor released his two-year $5.2 billion deficit reduction plan, calling for mid-year school aid cuts of $836 million and suggesting districts fill the gap with reserve funds.
The school board last Wednesday was following the recommendation made by a committee of teachers, parents, administrators, board members, and child-care providers that met over the course of a year to review research, consider costs, and look at existing full-day programs.
Starting the full-day program in 2009-10 would allow the district to use $883,000 in conversion aid from the state, which would more than cover the cost of the first year. The next year, there would be a dip in state aid since aid is based on enrollment two years prior, meaning the current half-day program. Thereafter, state aid would increase to reflect full-day kindergarten enrollment.
“All indicators lead to benefits for our young learners,” Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, told the school board. “And we make this recommendation fully aware of the state of the economy and the concerns you may have and the questions you may have...We acknowledge those concerns and expect much debate and dialogue around this topic.”
Kindergartens began in the mid-19th century, first in Europe, and later in the United States. Friedrich Frobel coined the term, which means “child’s garden,” opening a kindergarten in Germany in 1840, based on the work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. The Swiss Pestalozzi believed that children, instead of dealing with words, should learn through activities and should be free to pursue their own interests and draw their own conclusions; his goal was to educate the whole child, balancing head, heart, and hands.
The state’s Board of Regents, which governs education in New York, has called for full-day kindergarten but it has not yet been legislated.
“We’re one of only 34 schools across New York State out of 678,” with half-day kindergarten, said Singleton, who chaired the Guilderland committee with Westmere Elementary School Principal Debbie Drumm.
Most of those 34 districts are in the Capital District, Singleton said; one-fifth of the Suburban Council schools have half-day programs. Neighboring Voorheesville also has a half-day kindergarten program while Berne-Knox Westerlo has a full-day program.
Singleton cited “a growing body of research” showing the importance of early childhood education and he said that Governor David Paterson and the State Education Department have promoted universal pre-kindergarten programs.
Singleton also summarized research reviewed by the committee. (Its report is available online at the district website, www.guilderlandschools.org.)
The quality of a program is just as important as its length, said Singleton. “Students from all socio-economic levels benefit, both academically and socially,” he said, “but [benefits] are most apparent for lesser privileged students.”
Also, with full-day kindergarten, he said, long-term costs are reduced for special education and academic interventions.
A full-day program allows added time for art, music, and physical education, he said, and there’s no evidence that full-day programs “induce stress or anxiety in children.”
Singleton listed disadvantages to a full-day program as increased staffing, added costs for taxpayers, loss of rooms currently rented to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services for special-needs classes, day-care considerations, and difficulties in projecting enrollment.
Many parents now choose to send their 5-year-olds to day-care programs rather than the two-and-a-half hour program at Guilderland.
“The whole child”
Singleton also went over Guilderland’s “core beliefs” about kindergarten. “Regardless of length of program,” he said, “young children learn best through discovery, exploration, and active learning.”
Kindergarten, he said, should support a “natural approach to learning,” encouraging children to inquire, observe, choose, interact, solve problems, and take risks.
“Curriculum, we believe firmly, must maintain balance,” said Singleton, “to include direct instruction and projects, learning centers, active participation, and student-centered activity.” Physical activity is important, too, he said, concluding, “All of these beliefs are combined to nurture the development of a whole child.”
“Imagine the possibilities,” said long-time kindergarten teacher Debra Hoffman as she presented pictures of kindergartners in groups and alone, playing, building, and learning.
“We kindergarten teachers,” said Hoffman, “believe that a full day would greatly strengthen the foundation of learning at such an important and impressionable age, an age when the elasticity of the brain is still very much forming.”
She also said, “How formative it has been for our kindergartners to learn with hands-on activities and authentic materials such as blocks, water, paints, sand, clay, and play. These learning experiences have helped to form more pathways in their developing brain and to create more elasticity for fluid and flexible thinking...These concrete experiences are the touchstones the children make in their learning for the rest of their lives.”
Hoffman concluded, “We kindergarten teachers are excited about the possibility of lengthening our day so we may increase the breadth and depth of our program.”
The district has not always been so supportive of full-day kindergarten. In 2000, a similar committee made up of teachers, parents, administrators, and local child-care providers concluded Guilderland was meeting the needs of its students with the half-day program
And two years ago, after the state’s Board of Regents proposed all schools offer full-day kindergarten, then-superintendent Gregory Aidala said, “It almost seems like this is a solution in search of a problem.”
He said there was a push for full-day kindergarten in some rural areas because they “don’t have the same access to preschool programs as a suburban community.” And, Aidala went on, “There’s concern in urban areas where kids need to get off to a good start.” He concluded of suburban Guilderland, “These are not issues we face.”
Aidala cited David Elkind’s 1981 book, The Unhurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. Elkind has said that “full-day kindergarten is a day-care initiative, not an academic initiative.”
“Why are we rushing?” asked Aidala in 2006. “Where are we going?”
The current superintendent, McGuire, appointed last fall, said in the midst of last Wednesday’s discussion, “I’m very much a proponent of early childhood education…Our mission is education….We don’t do things poorly here; we do them well.”
Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders went over estimated figures for the full-day program.
No new classrooms would have to be built, he said, since enrollment in some upper elementary grades is decreasing, freeing space, and the district currently rents out classrooms to BOCES, which could be used for kindergartners.
Guilderland now employs nine-and-a-half teachers for 19 half-day classes spread across its five elementary schools, with classes numbering from 15 to 18 students.
The full-day plan would employ 17 teachers for 17 classes, with classes numbering 17 to 22 students.
In addition to the salaries for the added classroom teachers (totaling $604,000), there would be added costs for teaching assistants (which could range from an added $13,000 to $176,000, depending on whether they were used for three hours or six hours each day) and for added music, art, and physical education teachers (totaling $182,000).
Added supplies are figured at $19,000 and added equipment at $38,000. There would be a savings of $208,000 in transportation since the midday bus run would be eliminated.
So total expenditures for the program would range from $622,000 to $811,000, said Sanders, depending on the hours that teaching assistants are used.
The first year, 2009-10, conversion aid from the state, based on the number of anticipated students would total $883,000. Subtracting $60,000 for lost revenues in classroom rentals to BOCES, the revenues for the first year would come to $823,000, said Sanders, more than covering the cost of the program.
The next year, 2010-11, there would be the same costs but no conversion aid. Additionally, state aid would be based on half-day kindergarten pupil counts from two years before, reducing funds.
In 2011-12 and years following, state aid would increase to reflect the full-day kindergarten enrollment.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that going to a full-day is a great thing to do educationally,” said board Vice President John Dornbush, typifying the reaction of the other six members present. “The question is going to be the dollars.”
Board member Catherine Barber asked how many children go to pre-kindergarten programs.
“Probably 90 percent of our children have been in a program,” responded Drumm. When they go to kindergarten, most are moving to a shorter day than they had at preschool, she said.
On the issue of hiring teaching assistants for three or six hours a day, board member Barbara Fraterrigo, who served on the Early Childhood Advisory Committee, said, “I think, if we are going to implement, you implement the right way, and you support the teachers with the full-time teaching assistants.”
Fraterrigo also noted that kindergarten is not mandated by the state. She referred to a workshop she attended at the New York State School Boards Association and said she learned of a district that every year puts kindergarten up for public vote as a separate budget item; it always passes, she said.
Board member Colleen O’Connell, another committee member, said she hopes the report will dispel “urban myths” about full-day kindergarten.
One myth she would like dispelled, said O’Connell, is that the full-day program is to provide day care for the children of working parents. “This is to provide a rich academic and developmentally appropriate program,” said O’Connell.
“Without question, there is some need for additional academic preparation at the kindergarten level,” said Singleton. Early literacy skills, he said, would bolster elementary scores in English Language Arts and allow more time for the Everyday Math program.
“We are essentially only able to complete half of what we would like to complete,” said Singleton, with the half-day program.
Another myth that O’Connell said she wants to dispel is that the program would be transitional. “This is full-day, all in, in September,” she said.
Hoffman said she would like to reassure parents who worry the full day would be too much. “We’d have a wonderful balance of active parts of the day and restful parts of the day...We‘d have thinking time and playing time and we’d make it a very joyful experience for the children,” she said.
Board President Richard Weisz referred to the increased high-school drop-out rate at Guilderland and asked if there were any studies showing full-day kindergarten helped retain students. “Intrinsically,” said Weisz, “it seems to me the earlier you start teaching kids, the better. I was a little surprised at how...weak [research was showing] the impact on long-term educational benefits.”
Weisz also raised financial concerns. He asked of the roughly $800,000 annual additional cost for the full-day program, “What kind of hole are we building ourselves?...I’m taking a ...conservative view,” he went on, speculating assessments would drop, state aid would be cut, taxes would increase, the district would have to pay more for pension costs as the stock market falters, school programs would shrink.
Superintendent McGuire asked if the board could “conceptually embrace” full-day kindergarten for next year so that staff could begin planning for it.
If there’s a change in state aid, he said, “that tells us we can’t afford everything we’d like to have in our budget this year, I would lobby that the kindergarten is going to have to be considered with every other priority in the budget and see where it falls.”
“Is there anyone on the board who, if money wasn’t an object, has a reservation about going forward on the kindergarten proposal?” asked Weisz.
No one expressed any reservations.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on this committee,” said Singleton, “who is not aware of and accepting of the current economic conditions. We make no illusions that decisions have to be made.”
“My sense is it’s a priority issue,” concluded Weisz. “Can we afford to add another great program?”