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Educators balance kindergarten, funding cuts

A student raises her hand to get the

A student raises her hand to get the attention of Kindergarten teacher Fran Owen teaches students on their first day of school at Early Childhood Center school in Central Islip. (Sept. 5, 2012) Credit: Jeremy Bales

Central Islip teachers say they've made do with half-day kindergarten -- in which physical education, recess, music and art have been cut -- but will be glad to see it restored next year.

Longer school days help Kim Costello better understand her students' needs, she said.

"Teachers develop a much better sense of where the kids are, what their home life is like, what they need, what their strengths and weaknesses are," she said Wednesday, the first day of school in the Suffolk district.

Central Islip, which cut the full-day program in 2010 to save money, plans to bring back full-day classes for the 2013-14 school year. Essential to the restoration was teachers' agreement in July to a new contract, including wage concessions, that will save the district about $10 million during the next three years.

But kindergarten in districts across Long Island remains vulnerable, as schools look to years ahead under the state law capping property tax increases. New York is one of only six states that do not require districts to offer kindergarten programs, according to the Children's Defense Fund.

Fran Owen, a veteran who took quick command of her half-day kindergarten class Wednesday in the Early Childhood Center, said the truncated program doesn't allow her to take on some of the time-consuming projects her students enjoyed in the past.

"I can't go into things as detailed as I'd like," she said, adding that science and social studies have been hard-hit.

Owen, who captured every child's attention during an animated reading part way through class, won't be able to carve a pumpkin with the children as she had before, allowing them to feel and smell its stringy innards and count its seeds in their hands.

She said she used to bring apples to class so her children could make applesauce. And this fall, with an election approaching, she normally would create a mini voting booth so they could learn to cast ballots.

Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of the regional Eastern Suffolk BOCES agency, said skills learned in kindergarten help students throughout their academic careers.

"It's their first structured experience in an educational setting," he said.

East Islip held on to its full-day program for this school year, but officials are concerned about what's to come.

"The funding for the following year is going to be worse than this year . . .," said Louis F. Raffone, the school board's vice president. I don't know what's going to happen. "It's rough."

Joseph W. McHeffey, president of the Center Moriches school board, said it's too early to know which programs might be at risk for next year. As schools struggle financially, nothing is off limits, he said.

"It's a non-mandated expense and sooner or later, you have to look at all non-mandated expenses," he said. "When push comes to shove ... you can't rule anything out."

Jeffrey Kerman, president of the Three Village district's school board, said kindergarten is crucial, particularly for those who don't attend preschool.

But tax caps have educators worried about revenue. Three Village's cap is expected to shrink from 2.99 percent to roughly 2 percent next year.

"I've already asked the administration to start working on the budget," he said.

Jim Polansky, superintendent of the Huntington school district, said the current half-day program is aligned with state academic standards and manages to include physical education, art and music. Huntington went to half-days for the 2011-12 school year.

Still, he said, "we do hope to eventually restore the full-day program."

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