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At last night’s Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) school board meeting, the board approved an optional full-day paid kindergarten pilot program. The district will continue to offer half-day kindergarten as the default to all students without cost.

Prior to the change, all kindergarten students followed the common core curriculum condensed into three hours (a half-day). Families had an option to pay into a kindergarten “extension” that bridged the need for a full-day program and offered complementary care and guidance for kindergarteners at a cost of $400 per month. However, even with the extension program, all students learned the core curriculum during the three hours of classroom kindergarten instruction.

The pilot program, which will begin in the fall of 2015, aims to transform the existing 1/2 day extension, already in place, into a full-day program that integrates curriculum interspersed with enrichment and free-play.

The full-day kindergarten will also offer continuity of the same teacher and paraprofessional throughout the day, rather than the current extension program that has a separate teacher. But, to accommodate the separate treatment of the base curriculum, full-day and half-day kindergarteners will be taught in separate classes, whereas in the past, students participating in the extension program were in the same kindergarten classes as children attending half-day.

Dr. Thomas Smith, HVRSD’s Superintendent, explained that there are three main concerns, which are not mutually exclusive: 1) individuals who want 1/2 day kindergarten; 2) individuals who want full day kindergarten; and 3) those who are concerned about increasing costs for education during a time of declining enrollment. For more info presented, see the district’s slide-show material available online.

The board and administration stressed the successful track record of the current 1/2 day kindergarten program and offered that the introduction of the new pilot program is not necessarily curriculum based. However, when pressed, the Dr. Smith admitted that the intensity of the common core curriculum makes a full-day option attractive.

“School has become more rigorous on all levels whether we like it or not,” said Smith.

Many parents in attendance expressed concern that students in half-day kindergarten would be at a disadvantage upon starting first grade. The district maintained that the current half-day program is already providing an excellent foundation for first grade.

“First grade teachers ‘take students where they are’ so it is not a detriment for parents who do not want full-day kindergarten,” said Superintendent Smith.  Currently, first grade teachers have to address many disparities including some students never having had a classroom education before first grade, explained Smith.

The cost will be the same as the extension — $400 per month ($4000 per year). The cost to the district amounts to the salaries of possibly 6 teachers and 6 paraprofessionals at the tune of approximately $400,000, said Smith. In this way, the cost to the parents would remain the same as the extension while attempting to balance the desire many parents have expressed — an improved full-day program with more time to accomplish the kindergarten curriculum.

Parents spoke about the high cost of having to bridge the day especially for those parents who choose to stay home and forgo a second income to care for their families.

“Four thousand dollars is a lot of strain on people’s budget even if they don’t qualify for financial need,” said local resident Kari Pashman.

For those who can’t afford it, the administration urged individuals to contact the district to inquire about financial aid.

As for class sizes, parents expressed concerned about whether there would be a class size cap for the full-day kindergarten and spoke of the high number of students participating in a single extension class this year at Toll Gate Elementary.

Smith explained that kindergarten class sizes range typically between 18-20 with kindergarten classes being taught and supervised by not only the kindergarten teacher, but also a paraprofessional. All-day kindergarten would be within those parameters, explained Smith. The problem at Toll Gate this year, explained Smith, was trying to accommodate the size of the number of students in the extension and the decision not to split the extension class and bus some to another school.

This raised the question about bussing students. Parents shared a worry that if there is less or more of a demand for a particular option that their kindergarteners might have to attend kindergarten at a school other than their local elementary. Smith explained that whether half-day students will attend their local school is unclear as it is demand-based and can offer no guarantee.

At the close of last night’s meeting, many in attendance left with confusion about whether the pilot program had actually been approved however, this morning the district sent out the following email making it clear that a decision had been made when the board voted “in concept” whether they “were comfortable” with the proposed pilot program:

Dear Parents and Community Members,

On October 20, 2014, the Future Planning Committee (FPC) presented several recommendations to the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education to address the current and forecasted district enrollment changes.

One proposal was to move toward a full day kindergarten program by September, 2015. Since the FPC presentation, many community members have contacted the administration and Board both in support and opposition of full day kindergarten. Concerns voiced against the proposal were generally budgetary or surrounded eliminating an option for students not ready for a full day.

As we begin kindergarten registration for next year, I want to share a recent development in our planning for the 2015-16 school year. In an effort to balance the needs of our community, the Board of Education is supporting a plan to pilot a full day kindergarten program in September 2015. The pilot program replaces the district’s current kindergarten extension and will be assessed at the current rate; however, the full-day kindergarten program will include a rich full day curriculum including specials and free play and will be led by the same certified teacher for the entire day. Tuition assistance is available to anyone who demonstrates need. The traditional half day program will still be provided at no cost to parents.

We will closely monitor parent interest in both the full and half day programs and we may make adjustments based on this information. Response to the pilot, future legislation, budgetary constraints, and demand will contribute to the Board of Education’s future decision regarding transition to full day kindergarten throughout the district.

Sincerely,

Thomas A. Smith, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools

However, the pilot program may be a temporary one if the state issues a statewide mandate that districts provide full-day kindergarten. Should that mandate occur, Smith explained that the half-day option would disappear.

The goal, Smith explains, is ultimately for kids to love school regardless of whether it is full day or 1/2 day and this program is the district’s response to try to balance everyone’s interests.

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Mary Galioto
Mary Galioto is the founder, publisher and editor of MercerMe, and a lawyer. Originally from Brooklyn, Mary has progressively moved deeper and deeper into New Jersey, settling in the heart of the state: Mercer County. Formerly the author of an embarrassingly informal blog, Mary is a lifelong writer and asker of questions and was even mentioned, albeit briefly, in the New York Times and Washington Post. In her free time, Mary fills her life with mild germaphobia, excessive self-reflection, enthusiastic television viewing, and misguided adventures in random hobbies.

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