Schools ponder full-day early ed

Forum to address kindergarten plan

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / November 3, 2011

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Wellesley may join the growing number of Massachusetts school districts offering full-day kindergarten next year if a proposal being considered by the system’s administrators is approved.

Full-day kindergarten can level the playing field, said Superintendent Bella Wong, who presented the idea in a newsletter to families last week. And the gains, she said, are not just academic.

“There’s a lot of social skill-building in that kindergarten year: how to ask questions; how to work with one another; how to be ready to learn,’’ she said in an interview. “Research has supported full-day kindergarten.”

Eighty percent of children enrolled in kindergarten in Massachusetts attend full days - up from just 29 percent a little more than a decade ago, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

However, programs vary widely. Some districts offer full-day kindergarten to all students without any tuition or other fees; others offer part-time kindergarten, or a combination of part- and full-time sessions. And many full-time programs in the area charge fees ranging from $1,075 to $4,500.

Wellesley’s school district offers kindergarten on a hybrid schedule. The young students are put into two groups in September, and on Mondays and Thursdays, one group has a half day and the other stays for a full day. On Tuesdays and Fridays, they switch. Wednesday is a half day for everyone. After April vacation, both groups shift to full days.

“The hybrid model is expensive and hard to accommodate,’’ said Wong. “This was something that I’ve wanted to look at, and it just seemed like now, with the economic climate, we have to be sensitive that the current model is challenging for families.’’

Many families, said Wong, pay for child care on half days. The proposed full-day kindergarten program would be free, though Wong said she is not sure how it would be funded.

There will be a public forum on the topic Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. in the library at Sprague Elementary, 401 School St.

The state, which offers kindergarten development grants, defines full-day programs as five hours per day, five days per week, or a minimum of 850 hours per school year.

Wong said a full-time schedule would give Wellesley teachers more time to work through a curriculum that has grown more challenging over the years. And it could help close achievement gaps for at-risk children, she said.

“I feel that right now, with the hybrid model, the off-day experience is inequitable among our kids,’’ she said. “There are some kids with families that can provide a really rich off-day experience. And some families can’t. So I feel like our kids aren’t coming in with the same experience in first grade.’’

In Newton, a switch to full-day kindergarten from the hybrid model has been discussed on and off for years. While school officials say Newton’s kindergarten program is technically considered full time, children attend for half days three days a week. Some parents are pushing for a traditional full-day schedule.

Margaret Albright is running for Newton’s School Committee, and full-day kindergarten is a cornerstone of her campaign.

“There’s this push to make sure every kid’s on track to be a good reader by the time they hit third grade, and we have to do everything we can to make sure that happens,’’ she said. “Pre-K and full-day kindergarten are pieces of this.’’

Albright was a member of a task force that Newton set up 18 months ago to study the pros and cons of full-day kindergarten. Of the 1,044 parents who responded to a survey, 74.4 percent wanted full-day kindergarten, citing more learning time and a better schedule.

But Susan Rosenbaum, a member of the School Committee who was on the task force with Albright, contends the benefits of the hybrid model - especially the smaller classes in the afternoons - outweigh the benefits of a full-day system.

“Teachers only have half the class,’’ she said. “They love it. The kids love it. They get some really quality one-on-one time with these kids. That’s when they do all their literacy skills.’’

Newton Superintendent David Fleishman said the central question in the full-day kindergarten debate in both Newton and Wellesley is whether schools can afford classroom aides. Without aides, he said, losing the benefit of small-group time in the afternoons just isn’t worth it.

“People talk about early investment - save the money down the road,’’ he said. “That’s hard to know. I think the kids are already getting good education. It’s just a big up-front cost.’’

School districts in Massachusetts are required to provide at least half-day kindergarten programs with a minimum of 425 hours a year of class time; they have the option of charging a fee if they offer more.

Of the 306 school districts that offered kindergarten last school year, 192 offered districtwide full-day kindergarten, and 84 offered a combination of full-day and partial-day options, said Jonathan Considine, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The remaining 30 offered only part-day programs. Of the 276 districts that offered at least some full-day kindergarten, 80 charged tuition.

Wong said she will look into whether Wellesley is eligible for a state grant aimed at encouraging districts to offer full-day kindergarten. The biggest cost of the program, she said, will be the salaries of aides to help teachers manage their classrooms.

Wellesley’s proposal is still in the early stages of discussion, said Wong. Full-day kindergarten has been rejected before by Wellesley parents, she said, though she is hopeful that it might get more traction this time.

She acknowledges there may be pushback from parents who don’t want their children in school all day, every day. And budgetary concerns could be a major stumbling block.

“I’m fully aware it’s funding dependent, but I think it’s worth putting it out there as a conversation,’’ she said.

Wong said she is hoping to develop a proposal to include in the budget she will present to the School Committee next month. If approved, the full-day program would start in the fall.

“It comes with a cost,’’ she said. “But I also think it’s an investment up front.’’

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