Three LI districts move toward longer kindergarten days

Superintendent of Huntington Schools James W. Polansky and

Superintendent of Huntington Schools James W. Polansky and Board President Emily Rogan interact with students while inside Melissa Mazzalonga's Kindergarten class at Washington Elementary School in Huntington, Thursday, April 3, 2014. (Credit: Steve Pfost)

More than 600 children in Huntington, Miller Place and Floral Park-Bellerose will have longer kindergarten days in the fall if voters approve districts' proposed budgets May 20, leaving only five Long Island school districts with half-day programs.

The changes for the 2014-15 school year would continue the long-term movement toward lengthier kindergarten classes across Nassau and Suffolk counties. About 100 districts that serve elementary school students currently offer full-day sessions.

Some communities without full-day programs are under pressure to expand, though parents often are divided on the issue. In East Meadow, dozens of parents have campaigned in recent months for a move from half-day to full-day, with many contending that local children risk falling behind their counterparts in nearby districts, academically speaking.


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Kindergarten classes in New York State have long been vulnerable to cutbacks. New York is among just five states that don't require kindergarten, either full-day or half-day, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

 

Full days run 6 hours

Full-day classes typically run about six hours, while half-day classes are about 21/2 hours long.

All three districts calculate that their 2014-15 budgets will keep within state tax caps.

In Huntington, many parents are hailing the move to restore full-day kindergarten for about 350 children as a sign of recovery from political and financial turmoil that rocked the district several years ago.

School board trustees sealed the decision Monday night, in a 7-0 vote amid applause that approved a $117.6 million budget for submission to voters that includes $975,000 for the full-day classes.

"I am so thrilled," said Emily Rogan, 48, president of Huntington's school board and a mother of two students. "I think we're doing right by children at the district's schools."

Huntington had cut full-day kindergarten to half-day in fall 2011, citing limited space and tight finances. The district, under a previous board majority, closed a school building in the summer of 2010, then had reductions in state financial aid prompted by an economic downturn.

Since then, a new board majority and its chosen superintendent, James Polansky, have reversed course by reopening the school and moving to restore full-day kindergarten.

Advocates said longer kindergarten hours are needed to help youngsters prep for coursework aligned with the Common Core academic standards. Melissa Mazzalonga, 33, a veteran teacher at Huntington's Washington Primary School said extra time will allow her to provide students with 30 minutes of daily independent writing, along with more "guided reading" in small groups.

Supporters added that longer class days allow children time for lunch and recreation, and teachers don't have to rush through lessons.

"The children can take a little breath," said Peri Alfano, 58, a special-education teacher who shares a classroom with Mazzalonga.

Miller Place, meanwhile, is proposing full-day sessions for the first time in the district's history. A $69 million budget, adopted by the school board last month, included $197,520 for lengthened kindergarten, district officials said. Miller Place enrolls about 185 kindergartners.

Floral Park-Bellerose has ruled out full-day classes for the time being as too expensive. Instead, the district is moving toward extended sessions of four hours, 15 minutes.

That school board Monday night adopted a $28.4 million budget, including $150,000 for extended kindergarten.

Should Floral Park-Bellerose get extended classes, East Meadow would be the only remaining district in Nassau County with half-day kindergarten. Some local parents said this would be a stigma, noting that families often enroll kindergartners in private schools that have longer hours.

 

Financial restraints

"I think it's very sad that we are the last ones," said Robin Steinberger, 34, an East Meadow mother of two. She said her 2-year-old attends a Jewish preschool with lengthier classes than the public kindergarten attended by her 6-year-old.

East Meadow school officials have long maintained their district faces particular financial restraints, because much of its territory is occupied by nontaxed county facilities.

Louis DeAngelo, the East Meadow superintendent, said the district had carefully reviewed programs, including kindergarten.

"At this time, due to budgetary constraints, the district is not planning to offer a full-day program for the 2014-15 school year," DeAngelo added.

In the months leading to last week's adoption of the state budget, education leaders both on the Island and in New York City focused on broader financial priorities than kindergarten funding.

The Long Islanders pushed for restoration of state-aid money cut during the economic downturn. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sought fresh funding for a full-day prekindergarten program citywide.

State lawmakers gave both sides much of what they sought, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. In contrast, the state's 2014-15 aid package includes less than $2.2 million in incentives for lengthening kindergarten.

James Opiekun, the Floral Park-Bellerose superintendent, recalled recent trips to Albany where he talked to legislators about kindergarten financing and related issues. Lawmakers, he said, were attentive but noncommittal.

"There are so many fish frying now, I got the feeling this wasn't on their 'A' list," Opiekun said.

Kindergarten on Long Island

Eight Long Island school districts have half-day kindergarten programs. Three of those districts are proposing longer classes starting this fall, if voters approve on May 20. Here are the plans for each district.

East Meadow Maintain half-day classes

Floral Park-Bellerose Extend classes to four-plus hours

Elwood Maintain half-day classes

Harborfields Maintain half-day classes

Huntington Expand to full-day

Miller Place Expand to full-day

Mount Sinai Maintain half-day classes

Northport-East Northport Maintain half-day classes

Source: Individual districts

Compiled by John Hildebrand and Michael R. Ebert

3 districts may lengthen kindergarten days

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