A growing number of Long Island's public schools are expanding courses for the 2013-14 academic year in a marked shift from the recent past, when more districts held the line or cut programs.
Renewed emphasis on full-day kindergarten represents the most dramatic development as schools start reopening this week. Wantagh, for the first time, is providing full-day sessions for more than 190 youngsters, and Central Islip is restoring classes for more than 520 kindergartners after cutting back to half-day sessions three years ago.
Many districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties either reduced kindergartens to half-day sessions or threatened to do so during the economic downturn that began in 2008.
Local school officials attribute the revival of full-day classes, in large part, to fresh infusions of state financial aid. Lawmakers in March approved an increase of $112.7 million, or 5.28 percent, for the Island's schools -- the biggest boost since the recession's start. Moreover, the increasing use of more rigorous Common Core academic standards is generating calls for additional class time.
A Central Islip parent, Christina Cifuentes, 36, whose daughter, Ella, also 5, enters full-day kindergarten next week at the Central Islip Early Childhood Center, agreed that extended class time is essential in an era when kindergartners are assigned more academic work than in the past.
"In a half-day program, it's hard for teachers to cover everything," Cifuentes said. "With full-day, they don't have to race through each subject."
School leaders cautioned that what's happening on the Island cannot be considered a full turnaround. Districts will grapple with the third year of state-imposed tax caps, which will almost certainly continue to limit growth in school services in 2014-15. In addition, class sizes in both elementary and secondary grades are inching up across the region, a result of staff cutbacks.
The size of average elementary classes, for example, rose from 20.7 students in the 2007-08 school year to 21.5 students in 2011-12, according to the state Education Department. A few districts facing the most severe financial pressures have seen some class sizes rise to 30 students or more.
Many school administrators say the trend is troubling and should be reversed, though by historic standards classes remain relatively small in most districts. "At the primary grades, especially the very early grades, it does make a difference, because in kindergarten, you still have some youngsters who can't tie their shoes," said Edward Melnick, superintendent of North Shore schools, based in Sea Cliff.
Leading administrators acknowledge, however, that conditions have improved for some districts, which have started to add teachers and programs even as others continue to cut back.
"The trends are changing to some degree," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services and a veteran regional analyst. "I think we're seeing districts that are moving in different directions."
Such courses reflect on schools' prestige, because student enrollment rates are used by media organizations, such as The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, in calculations for national rankings.
Rocky Point this year is adding AP courses in Italian and in Spanish Language and Culture. Elwood is adding three such courses: Statistics, Environmental Science and Psychology.
Hauppauge, which established an International Baccalaureate program last year, is bringing in 14 new advanced courses this semester to round out its college-level offerings. Subjects range from visual arts to physics, chemistry and calculus.
Rocky Point's superintendent, Michael Ring, credits extra state financial assistance with allowing his district to establish new courses and hire teachers.
"That's all from the extra aid," Ring said.
Some education experts at both local and national levels have concluded that extra money is better invested in advanced coursework and teacher training, rather than in classes that are simply smaller.
A new book, "Endangering Prosperity," published by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, concludes that a nationwide drop in class sizes of one-third that began in the early 1970s produced negligible gains in student achievement. The book was written by three university researchers -- Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann -- and includes a foreword by Lawrence Summers, president emeritus of Harvard University and a potential candidate to be the next Federal Reserve chairman.
Joseph Fusaro, the Elwood school board president, said he has spoken with some residents who are anxious that classes be kept small. Fusaro added that he has talked to others who recall sitting in classes of 35 students in their youth, and who wonder why sizes are so much smaller today.
"I don't have to tell you, we're all trying to do more with less, not only in school settings, but also in our daily lives," said Fusaro, who owns a construction and real estate company.
Research offeringsAnother growth area is high school research, which prepares teens for regional and national competitions and further study in science, medical and engineering fields.
The Eastport-South Manor district, which established a research program last year, is adding a second-year course this semester.
Hampton Bays, to cite another example, decided to hire a research teacher this year after receiving an application from a Stony Brook University graduate with unique credentials.
The new instructor, Stephanie Forsberg, 31, holds a doctorate in marine sciences and has been trained to teach high school courses that provide SUNY college credits. Forsberg has engaged in extensive oceanographic research near the island of Tahiti and elsewhere; as an East Hampton High School senior, she won semifinalist honors in the national Intel science contest in 2000.
Forsberg said she looks forward to encouraging science-minded students to remain in the East End as adults.
"I would really like to see a lot of those students come back [after pursuing higher education], to keep Long Island the beautiful place that it is," she said.