Tight budgets threaten kindergarten programs

Claudio Reyes, 5, and Oscar Rivas Portillo, 6, Claudio Reyes, 5, and Oscar Rivas Portillo, 6, both students in an inclusion kindergarten class work with the computer in the Dryden Street School's library/media room. (May 22, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

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Kindergarten students at Westbury's Dryden Street School have both breakfast and lunch at school, use computers nearly every day, practice shape concepts on an interactive white board and often are reading by the end of the school year.

In this Nassau County district where many students learn English as a second language, the full-day program is essential to their success, educators said.

"It's a foot up," principal Dale Telmer said. "We do so much for their growth, both emotionally and academically. It's a full-day program, and it's what they need."

The district -- which operated this past school year on an austerity spending plan after its budget was defeated in May 2011 -- was headed toward potentially cutting back to half-day kindergarten for the 2012-13 school year.

But on May 15, a record 62 percent of the district's voters turned out and passed the budget. School officials said they believe that hefty approval came in part from a desire to preserve the full-day program.

When districts are squeezed financially, kindergarten programs can be particularly vulnerable: New York is one of only six states that do not require districts to offer any kindergarten program, according to the Children's Defense Fund. And the savings from scaling back kindergarten, in personnel costs alone, are substantial.

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"It is a big expense that is not mandated. It is available to be eliminated or cut back, and therefore districts consider it," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of the regional Eastern Suffolk BOCES education agency.

The prospect of trimming kindergarten to half-days heated up in several school districts this spring. Educators and parents in the Center Moriches, East Islip and Three Village districts -- three of nine Long Island districts where budgets were defeated in May -- fear it could happen if their budgets are voted down a second time. Each of the nine districts is offering a reduced budget for a revote on June 19.

 

Programs at risk

At an East Islip board meeting last week, parent Barbara Sorbi spoke of how half-day kindergarten could affect her daughter, who is starting school in the fall. "My daughter already goes to preschool more than 21/2 hours [a day]," she said. "This would be a huge step backwards."

Jacquie Azzizzo, who has a 5-year-old and is a teacher in another school district, said she was "devastated" the district was considering cutting to half-day, and noted the standardized testing that begins in elementary school.

Ultimately, school officials announced that, thanks to concessions made by teachers and administrators, a budget with a 2.99 percent tax increase -- if approved -- would preserve the full-day program.

Of 697 school districts statewide, 634 offered full-day kindergarten in 2010 -- an increase of more than 50 percent since 1991, the state Department of Education reported. On Long Island, only 10 districts have half-day programs; the other 111 districts that serve elementary-school students offer full-day kindergarten, according to the department.

In the Three Village district, where a full-day program has been in place since 1986, hundreds of parents packed a board of education meeting last month after the district said it could save about $660,000 if it went to half-days.

Ultimately, the full-day program was preserved.

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"I am very relieved," said Lisa Stickelman, who has a 5-year-old son entering school in the fall. "I do believe the tremendous support of all the parents that spoke that night was a persuading factor."

Three Village school officials have not said that the program would be scaled back if voters reject the revised budget on June 19, but they would be forced to cut $3.8 million from the budget. East Islip school officials and administrators in the Center Moriches district have said that a second failed budget would likely mean shortening the full-day program.

Educators said children often begin kindergarten having already experienced some sort of preschool program, and a full-day program also is helpful for working parents.

"Parents and adults in general recognize the importance of kindergarten," Bixhorn said. "It is really the foundation of the entire educational experience. The more enriched we can make that year of school, the students are going to move ahead more quickly."

On Long Island, a handful of districts have cut back their full-day programs in recent years. In Central Islip, Elwood and Huntington, voters had approved budgets, but the kindergarten trim was driven by escalating employee costs and substantial declines in state aid.

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Central Islip, a district where many of the students are English-language learners, went to half-days in fall 2010 -- a move that school board president Fred Philips said has had a negative impact.

"We have seen kids who went to half-day kindergarten for the last two years, and it takes a first-grade teacher a good almost third of a year to bring those kids up to speed where they would normally be if they had the benefit of a full-day kindergarten," he said.

But Philips also said it would cost the district more than $1 million to restore the full-day program.

A half-day program, according to the state, must have at least 21/2 hours of instruction, and a full-day program is classified as having at least five hours.

 

A proven advantage

Educational experts said the academic value of full-day programs is proven, and noted it is difficult to incorporate what 5-year-old children need into a shorter time frame -- especially in this age when state standardized tests start at the elementary level.

"Clearly, the research shows it is of tremendous benefit to attend a full-day program," said Lisa Minicozzi, a visiting assistant professor of education who has specialized in early childhood education at Adelphi University's Ruth S. Ammon School of Education.

"We are seeing a trend for an academic push down," she said. "Kindergarten has become the new first grade."

A full-day program, Minicozzi said, gives teachers the option to create a more balanced approach where children learn not just academics but socialization through play and imaginative games.

"My fear is that the half-day program will solely be academic and limit children in terms of full whole-child development," she said.

Telmer, of the Dryden Street School, emphasized that the school's kindergarten classrooms include blocks, doll tables and other interactive toys that are an important part of the early childhood experience.

Chelsea McNair, 6, said she is very happy there.

"I meet most of my friends here," she said. "And they always cheer me up."

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