The full-day kindergarten dilemma

Published May 2, 2017 in the Saugus Advertiser.

By Jeannette Hinkle, Saugus Advertiser.

Proponents of full-day kindergarten cite a slew of benefits for a child’s emotional, social and academic development.

“We know that full-day kindergarten makes a difference,” says Early Education For All Director Amy O’Leary. “It’s really about more time for quality instruction, more time for teacher and student interaction, learning the routines of the day. If you think about two-and-half hours versus six hours, there’s just more time for instruction and learning at your own pace.”

And while most kids in the commonwealth do have access to full-day kindergarten — 93 percent, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — for many it comes at a price, one that not everyone can pay.

The result: some children across the commonwealth are reaping the benefits, and others are not.

Districts that do provide free, full-day kindergarten pay for the program with a mix of state and local funding. Nearly all of western Massachusetts now provides free, full-day kindergarten, but the North Shore remains a patchwork of free and tuition-based kindergarten programs.

In Melrose, for example, Mayor Rob Dolan said it took snow-removal savings from a nearly snowless winter for Melrose to be able fund free, full-day kindergarten in 2012.

One town over, in Saugus, former Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Malone proposed funding free, full-day kindergarten and other critical educational needs through “consolidation and right-sizing” by closing Waybright Elementary School and relocating district fifth-graders to Belmonte Middle School — moves the School Committee didn’t support.

In fact, more than 100 parents packed a School Committee meeting to oppose the plan. So next year, barring any late adjustments to the budget, Saugus parents will again pay tuition for their kindergarteners.

Danvers, on the other hand, has made free, full-day kindergarten a priority since 2008.

“For the community in Danvers, it was important that every student had access to our full-day program, not based on whether they could afford it,” School Superintendent Lisa Dana said. “We get to know all of our students for the entire day. We know what resources are needed.

Full-day proponents point out full-day kindergarten students do better than their counterparts in early grades, especially important since first grade has become more socially and academically challenging.

Proponents also say full-day kindergarten allows schools to identify learning problems among students earlier and to intervene earlier, saving communities money in the long run. And yet the disparity continues from town to town.

Convoluted funding sources

State funding stems from the kindergarten expansion grant, which has had a rocky history since it was instituted in 1999. There were originally two grants — one to provide funding that would help districts transition to a full-day program and one to maintain a full-day program after a district had transitioned.

Those grants were eventually combined, but because of budget cuts over the years, all of the available funding now goes to maintain established full-day programs. This leaves districts without a free, full-day kindergarten program, such as Saugus, with two options — fund the free, full-day kindergarten program with local money or charge tuition.

To move to a full-day kindergarten program, districts must foot the bill for one year before they are reimbursed for the extra half-day by the state through Chapter 70 education funding.

For Melrose, Dolan said that bridge year cost around $600,000.

“That one-year delay was close to what I bring in all new taxation in a year,” Dolan said. “I used all our available money for snow and free cash that year to accomplish that goal.”

Among communities that charge for full-day kindergarten, tuition varies greatly.

Topsfield charged $3,300 this year. Reading charged $4,200. And Saugus charged $2,700. Because of the high cost, some parents in tuition-based districts send their children to half-day programs. In Saugus, 41 students attended half-day kindergarten this year.

This disparity creates an educational imbalance among students that that many state officials and local educators and activists argue should be corrected at the state level.

Benefits on childhood development

Early Education for All, a campaign by nonprofit Strategies for Children that supports free, full-day kindergarten in Massachusetts, cites studies that show full-day kindergarteners exhibit more independent learning, classroom involvement and productivity in work with peers than half-day kindergarteners.

The National Association of School Psychologists lists higher, long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher reading scores in early grades and more reinforcement of positive social behavior among the benefits of full-day kindergarten programs.

Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College, said the period between 5 and 7 years old is a crucial time in childhood development.

“It is this period of enormous cognitive and social growth,” Engel said. “It’s during that time that kids become able to and eager to learn information and learn skills in a more formal way than they have before. It’s the perfect time to begin to encounter the kinds of things that are available in good kindergarten programs.”

Full-day kindergarten helps Danvers teachers identify students that have extra learning needs early and allows the school system to support those students earlier in their schooling, Superintendent Dana said. Danvers instituted its free, full-day kindergarten program seven years ago with assistance from the state kindergarten expansion grant.

These are benefits Bonnie Page knows well.

Before she became president of the Malden Education Association, Page worked for 22 years as a kindergarten teacher in Malden.

In 1998, Page was one of five teachers to pilot the first free, full-day kindergarten classrooms in Malden, funded by the kindergarten expansion grant.

Unfair expectations

Page said many teachers feel the two-and-a-half hours typical of half-day programs is too little time to reach state achievement standards, even though the state expects full-day and half-day kindergarteners to achieve the same learning objectives.

“Some are half-day and some are full-day, and they’re all supposed to measure up to the same goal,” Page said. “It’s very difficult to explain that to administration and the state. You can’t expect everybody to reach the same height if they’re all getting different experiences and time to spend on it.”

Increasing social and academic demands in first grade also places more emphasis on kindergarten, educators say.

“Since first grade has gotten so academic and competitive, they really need to have a lot of skills to move from kindergarten to first grade,” Page said. “If you don’t have full-day kindergarten and then you plop kids in first grade, they don’t know how to work with other kids. They don’t know how to follow routines. They don’t know how to pay attention, take turns. It’s not osmosis. You really have to learn those things.”

Moving forward

With the recent push towards providing public preschool, Massachusetts’s full-day kindergarten policy is attracting increasing attention.

In July 2015, Gov. Charlie Baker ignited a storm of controversy when he recommended cutting the $17.5 million available in the kindergarten expansion grant, leaving just $1 million in the kindergarten fund.

Both the House and Senate unanimously overrode Baker’s veto to restore the funding.

O’Leary said that event sparked an important conversation surrounding kindergarten policy and funding in Massachusetts.

“With the actions that happened in last year’s budget, it’s obvious that there should be a bigger conversation about this,” O’Leary said. “We see kindergarten as a really critical link between the early-education years and the early-elementary years, so we are considering how we can use this opportunity to really highlight the importance of full-day kindergarten.”

This past fall, state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, sponsored a bill that would lower the compulsory age of education in the state from 6 to 5, meaning that all school districts in Massachusetts would provide mandatory, free, full-day kindergarten.

“People always say, how can we afford to invest all this money in pre-k and full-day kindergarten?” DiDomenico said. “My answer to that is we can’t wait. On the back end, we’re spending more money than we would on services for kids who aren’t on par with their fellow classmates because they didn’t have full-day kindergarten. We cannot afford to wait.”

DiDomenico said that the bill is currently being vetted in the Education Committee, which is exploring funding options. If the bill doesn’t pass, DiDomenico said he would refile it.

“I think universal full-day kindergarten is a right for all children, not just a privilege,” DiDomenico said. “We have to make sure that we have the resources there.”

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