By late February, the school board is expected to approve a plan for Miller-Driscoll School to move to a full-day kindergarten program. Some parents and community members have objected, citing concerns of larger afternoon class sizes, less teacher attention for students, delayed bus routes, and longer days in general for young children.
Principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner, who was integral in proposing the policy at a Nov. 20 Board of Education meeting, said the move would be a “win-win” for kindergartners and first and second graders.
Full-day kindergarten has been gaining momentum across the state, moving from 52 districts in 2006 to 99 in 2012, according to Ms. Jensen-Gerner’s proposal.
Throughout Fairfield County, 16 of the 23 districts currently provide a full-day program; two use a full-day lottery system; three offer half-day programs; and two, including Wilton, offer an “extended-day program.”
The current extended-day program at Miller-Driscoll divides the kindergarten class into two sections, in which any given student goes to school for a full day only twice a week, allowing students of the opposite section to fulfill their two full days with more teacher attention.
The division allows for smaller class sizes in the afternoon, often with fewer than 10 students per class.
The new proposal would have all students go to school for a full day (9:05 a.m. to 3:35 p.m.) every day of the week, which would increase afternoon class sizes to about 18 or 19 students.
The transition to full-day in Wilton is comparatively delayed in relation to other districts, Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards said. The primary reason is that administrators have been assessing how effective the integration of the Miller and Driscoll schools had been, which was a process Ms. Jensen-Gerner helped promote three years ago.
“We wanted to make sure the consolidation was working as we thought it would before moving kindergarten to a full-day format,” Dr. Richards said.
According to Ms. Jensen-Gerner, the benefits of a full-day program include a less-hurried setting for students with fewer wasteful transitional periods, which can detract from instructional time. She said there will also be more time consistency and flexible schedules, day-to-day continuity in math and literacy instruction, and more opportunities to offer students small-group and independent activities.
Changes in Connecticut core curriculum standards, which were mandated two years ago this July, added 23 to 25 standards in reading and math to the kindergarten curriculum. Those elements of the curriculum used to be part of the first grade course work.
A move to full-day would provide students a less academically intensive environment by spreading the required instruction over a longer period of time, Ms. Jensen-Gerner said.
The school board is also hoping to add 2.5 full-time reading teachers to the faculty, and have on hand seven full-time paraprofessionals. Ms. Jensen-Gerner said this would not have a negative impact on first and second grade classes, and teachers would be used efficiently at the building in such a way that all grades at Miller-Driscoll would likely benefit.
“We are looking at this kindergarten shift as a building-wide effort for the better,” she said.
There will be transportation savings as a result of the move, but Dr. Richards said they are negligible compared to the Board of Education’s roughly $74-million budget, and the savings were not considered a driver in the decision-making.
“By eliminating a mid-day bus run, there will be a savings,” he said. However, this has been offset by other aspects of the budget, such as staffing. Our estimate at this point is that there may be a $75,000 savings district-wide.”
The move to full-day from extended-day is expected to be comparatively smooth for students and instructors, Dr. Richards said.
“Our situation is unlike districts that are going from a half-day to a full-day program, which is a major leap,” he said.
Part of the school board’s vision is “Ready by Five, Fine by Nine,” a model designed to provide “comprehensive programs and services to all children.”
The effort aims to help children achieve reading mastery by tracking and reporting on children’s reading progress at the end of kindergarten and first and second grades, among other teaching strategies.
The new program would not impact morning class sizes, which would be at about 18 or 19 students throughout the day, according to Board of Education enrollment figures.
As part of her proposal research, Ms. Jensen-Gerner has visited comparable schools at neighboring districts that made the transition to full-day, and she said “teachers are impressed by how much kids are able to do.”
Not in favor
Katie Cunningham, a professor of literacy at Manhattanville College in New York, is one of many Wiltonians who have joined “Save Extended Day Wilton Kindergarten,” a petition to stop the move to full-day. The website ipetitions.com (search Wilton Kindergarten) boasts almost 100 signatures from concerned parents and residents.
Some members of the petition have voiced concerns that the bus schedule will become badly impeded by the transition and that preschoolers will struggle making an abrupt leap into the public school system.
“As an educator, researcher and parent, I believe the extended day model is an ideal model when considering the whole child coming into kindergarten,” Dr. Cunningham said. “It allows students to go home for a few days a week in order to have sustained energy for learning.”
Dr. Cunningham also said a move to full-day would compromise the small class sizes students are currently afforded in the afternoon.
“That’s when they do their small group reading and math instruction,” she said. “Every kid comes into kindergarten with different skills for reading and math. Small groups are the best way for teachers to work with them.”
Miller-Driscoll School is not a neighborhood school, but a town-wide school, so kindergartners often have to leave much earlier than 9:05 a.m. and return much later than 3:35 p.m., Dr. Cunningham said. One mother reported her child is on the bus at least 40 minutes in the morning.
Some parents object to children losing the opportunity to participate in after-school activities such as sports and dance. Arriving home in the late afternoon, many will be too tired to then go on to more activities, they said.
“The extended-day program is a great opportunity to transition into a few longer days, while still giving young children a chance to ‘just be kids’ and play, or pursue an activity they really enjoy,” Marissa Lowthert said on the petition. “More class time does not mean more learning — just more sitting at desks!”
Parents also objected to the timing of the proposal — kindergarten registration was held just last month.
Parents who choose to hold their children back — with a Dec. 31 birthday cutoff, some children will not even be 5 years old when school starts in late August — thus will incur the expense of another year of preschool.
Is it better?
According to the National Education Association, full-day kindergarten has advantages over half-day kindergarten, but it is not clear if there is an advantage over extended-day kindergarten. A kindergarten fact sheet at the NEA website says, “Longitudinal data demonstrate that children in full-day kindergarten classes show greater reading and mathematics achievement gains than those in half-day classes.”
In addition, “full-day kindergarten offers social, emotional and intellectual benefits to kindergartners, giving them more time to focus and reflect on activities, and transition between them.”
“The next stage is to bring the proposal back to the board for a conversation and to go over advantages, and then there will be another meeting to make a decision, which we expect by the end of February,” Dr. Richards said.
Ms. Jensen-Gerner’s full-day kindergarten proposal, described at the Nov. 20 school board meeting, is available at miller-driscollschool.org.