Money, space are setbacks to full-day K in Warwick
Superintendent Peter Horoschak is all in favor of full-day kindergartens in Warwick, if the state provides the setup costs of establishing the system, and the funds to pay for increased operational costs.
But that isn’t the intent of legislation introduced by Sen. Hannah Gallo of Cranston and endorsed by the Department of Education and Rhode Island Kids Count.
The bill calls on the state to offset a portion of reasonable startup costs for three or four communities that currently provide full-day kindergarten to fewer than 50 percent of students. Of Warwick’s 623 kindergarteners, 62 are in full-day classes and the remainder is in the half-day program. Under Gallo’s legislation, the program would be available to those districts that apply, beginning in the 2013-14 school year.“Do I believe in it, yes; can we afford it, no,” said Robert Bushell, director of elementary education. In order for Warwick to offer universal full-day K, Bushell said the department would need an additional 16 kindergarten teachers and teaching assistants. Based on an average salary and benefit costs of $150,000 per classroom, schools would be faced with an added $2.4 million in operational costs.
According to a release issued by Sen. Gallo, funding would be based on a portion of reasonable startup costs, including but not limited to desks, books and facility upgrades. If more than three or four districts apply, the Commission of Elementary and Secondary Education will determine those selected to participate, based on current ability to house the students, maximizing the number of students that can enter full-day K that year.
There’s more to implementing full-day kindergarten than additional equipment. As Horoschak sees it, even though enrollment is declining, enabling the closure of four elementary schools in recent years, some schools would need additions to accommodate another kindergarten. Further, he points out, kindergarten classrooms incorporate special features, such as a lavatory and a larger overall area than conventional classrooms. Bushell said, according to state regulations, kindergarten classrooms should be 1,200 square feet, as compared to 800 to 900 square feet for conventional classrooms. He said outfitting a classroom would cost $5,000 to $7,000. “To add that much space, I don’t know how we’d do it. We don’t have the extra classrooms,” he said.That said, Bushell sees the need for longer classroom times in kindergartens and 1 through 6.“What’s required to teach these kids, we really can’t do it in half a day. We need a longer day for K and for 1 through 6,” he said. The day for 1 through 6 is now five and a half hours.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Horoschak echoed. Nonetheless, in looking at long-term facility needs, the department is factoring in all-day kindergarten in case the program is mandated, or the School Committee elects to do it.
Gallo, who said she has received a lot of positive feedback on the legislation, argues full-day K will “ultimately save money,” as it has been shown to increase graduation rates and reduce special education costs.
A mandate to provide the program without funding, Horoschak said, would be “irresponsible” and “outrageous.” If the city were to offer the program, Horoschak observes, there would likely be an influx of students as parents transfer their children from private all-day programs.
Gallo is not looking to make the program a mandate.
“I don’t think in these times we can have unfunded mandates,” she said.
School administrators don’t dispute the educational benefits of full-day K. Horoschak “called it a sound step.”
“All studies, all statistics show that children benefit academically from participating in full-day kindergarten,” said Gallo in a statement.
“With three out of every four 4-year-olds in the country enrolled in some type of preschool program, kindergarten no longer serves as the entry to formal, full-day schooling for most children. In addition to the academic good it serves, full-day kindergarten provides a smoother transition into regular grade school and gives teachers more time to provide meaningful learning opportunities that help cognitive, physical and social-emotional development,” she said.Warwick has a full-day K at Oakland Beach, which is a Title 1 school, as well as at the Drum Rock Early Childhood Center.
Gallo worked with Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Deborah Gist in drafting the bill.
“Learning in the early years is the foundation that supports a lifetime of learning, so I strongly support initiatives that expand educational opportunities for our youngest learners,” Gist said in a statement.
“This proposal will benefit thousands of our children without imposing any costs or mandates on communities,” she added.
Kids Count, that tracks the well-being of children in the state, found that while the percentage of Rhode Island kindergarten students attending full-day programs has increased from 18 percent in 1999-2000 to 64 percent in 2011-12, the state is still below the national average of 74 percent. Nineteen school districts have full-day K and 17 have half-day programs.
Gallo said she hopes funding from the state’s Race to the Top grant could be used to get those districts considering full-day K to start up the program.
“They need to be pushed,” she said, “and I’m there to nudge.”
Gallo said Rep. Joy Hearn of Barrington would introduce a companion bill in the House.