Thursday, September 26, 2002

Cape considers extending kindergarten day

Published in the Current

Surprising even themselves, several parents were persuaded to look more closely at extending the kindergarten class day during a Cape Elizabeth School Board workshop Tuesday. But several board members were concerned about how to quantify the value of such a change, to be able to justify the added expense.

“We’ve been discussing this issue for five years,” said School Board Chairman Marie Prager.

This latest discussion came as the school building committee looked for advice from the public on the size of a proposed addition to Pond Cove School.

A two-story addition, estimated to cost $2.5 million, could house all-day or extended-day kindergarten classes in the future. At a reduced cost, around $1.7 million, a one-story addition would provide space only for a relocation of the current kindergarten space from its home at the high school, freeing up room there to increase teaching space.

Prager made clear that the board was not trying to decide on the specifics of a longer kindergarten day, or whether it would be implemented at all.

Rather, she said, it was about whether it was a good idea to keep the option available, or to rule it out.

The meeting began with an hour of background information, primarily in support of a longer kindergarten day, from School Board members, Superintendent Tom Forcella, and kindergarten and first-grade teachers.

Prior board research, including reference to studies of the impact of longer kindergarten days, indicated that “the value of the program was worthy of consideration,” according to Elaine Moloney, a board member and chair of the most recent committee to study the issue. “The problem was the space,” Moloney said.

There was no room in Cape Elizabeth’s schools for the additional kindergarten classrooms that would be required to serve the same number of students for longer hours.

Information from other school districts, presented by Forcella and several teachers, indicated that there were academic and social benefits to a longer kindergarten day.

Teachers also cited the advantage of additional time for socialization and less pressure on students and teachers to cover large amounts of material in what is now a two-and-a-half-hour session each day.

The evidence and depth of research impressed parents.

One mother told the board she had come into the meeting opposed to the idea of anything other than half-day kindergarten. “I totally changed my mind,” she said.

Other parents said they remained worried about students’ ability to handle a full-day kindergarten, but were interested in making the kindergarten day longer than it is now.

Debbie Cushing, a parent of middle school students, said she felt building the additional space was a good idea, and the incremental expense was “a small cost to pay for a huge range of options.” Even if all-day kindergarten never came to pass in Cape, she said, “that space will be used for something.”

Suzanne Martin-Pillsbury, a parent of young children, said she feels the present kindergarten experience was good, but rushed. She said it would be smart to have “space enough to have options.”

Another mother, who was a teacher in South Portland when they started all-day kindergarten, said she is unsure about the program.

“Your child’s gone quicker that way,” she said. But she said it would be “shortsighted” not to build space for expansion.

Another mother said readiness for all-day school at age 5 depends on the family and the child, but it could be a good option. She suggested all-day class be an option for parents to choose. She worried, though, that parents who did not choose a longer school day for their kindergarteners would be concerned about the student “getting behind” classmates in learning and social progress.

Nancy Jordan, mother of a current kindergarten student and two younger children, said she knows there is a lot of material packed into the short kindergarten day, but proposed another way to ease pressure on teachers and students. “What about lightening up the curriculum?” she asked.

Pond Cove School Principal To m Eismeier responded, saying he and the kindergarten teachers talk frequently about “reasonable goals” for kindergarten classroom education.

Board members were in favor of building the expanded space, but several – Susan Steinman, George Entwistle and Kevin Sweeney – were concerned about justifying the expense of a longer kindergarten day to a money conscious Town Council and voting public.

Steinman wanted additional data on how students who had attended an all-day kindergarten would fare, and whether that experience would reduce behavior problems or other social problems in the primary grades.

“If there’s an expense, there needs to be demonstrated gains,” Entwistle said.

Sweeney said he was “unconvinced” of the value of an all-day kindergarten, but supported building space that allowed room to grow, whether in the form of more kindergarten or other educational areas.

After the meeting, Lisa Silverman-Gent, a Cape parent, said she was relieved to learn that the board was not making a decision on the form of a longer-day kindergarten, but was instead just deciding on building space to have options.

The next step will be a formal recommendation from the School Board to its building committee Oct. 8, allowing the building committee to proceed on schedule, Prager said. The next School Board workshop will be Oct. 22, at 7 p.m., in the high school library, for a discussion of high school and middle school programming issues.