Full-day kindergarten is set to go with op-out choice

The Wilton Board of Education passed the long-anticipated proposal for full-day kindergarten at the March 7 school board meeting. The new program, a hotly debated topic, which now includes an opportunity to opt out, narrowly passed, 4-2. Board members Karen Birck and Laura Schwemm voted against the plan. The other board members are Gil Bray, Christine Finkelstein, Lory Rothstein, and Chairman Bruce Likly.

Mr. Likly said the community’s response was mixed and at some times contentious.

“The voices we heard from included individuals who were strongly for full-day kindergarten, strongly against it, and in support of and against the opt-out plan the administration included in the final proposal,” he said.

“We also had several members of the community who asked very good, in-depth questions about the proposal and its budget impact.”

Mr. Likly said students whose families choose to opt out will be prepared for first grade, despite missing two hours of class time.

“Opt-out students will miss socialization opportunities, as well as a writing block,” he said. “They will receive reading intervention and early math. The earlier and more consistently we introduce students to those two curriculum areas, the better it is.”

Much of the debate originated with a school board meeting on Nov. 20 of last year, in which Wilton’s Board of Education discussed extending kindergarten class-time hours over the course of a school week.

Cheryl Jensen-Gerner, principal of Miller-Driscoll School and a primary advocate of the new plan, has illustrated how a shift to full-day could benefit students, faculty and parents by decompressing the town’s extended-day program, which has already become cramped with a state curriculum designed for full-day programs.

The three varieties of kindergarten programs are full-day, which offers full days of class on each day of the week; half-day, which offers daily class time of only half the regular school day; and extended-day (Wilton’s current model), which offers a blend of the half- and full-day programs.

Of the 23 districts in Fairfield County, 16 have full-day programs, three offer half-day, and only two — Wilton and Westport — offer extended-day, although Westport is transitioning to full-day.

“Just since last year, about 20 districts have gone to full-day, and they were all over the landscape — some were partial-day, others were extended-day,” Ms. Jensen-Gerner said.

Wilton’s kindergarten program currently includes two days a week of half-day schedules, which is problematic, according to Ms. Jensen-Gerner, because the curriculum is too compressed.

“In the end,” Mr. Likly said after the March 7 meeting, “I think the approved proposal became better and will significantly enhance our educational offering by giving teachers more time to better pace instruction for our youngest learners and reduce our costs by approximately $50,000 while giving families that need it the option to transition their children into the school environment at a pace they have some control over.”

The approved plan includes an option for families who don’t want to have their children attend full-day kindergarten. Those students will leave Miller-Driscoll School daily at 1:30, but families must provide their own transportation at departure time.

Many in the community still yearn for the old extended-day program.

“I believe the extended-day program was an ideal transition for Wilton’s 4- and 5-year-old children,” said Katie Cunningham, an assistant professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. “The current system honored the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of young learners by providing two full days and three shortened days.

“I am saddened to think that the pressures of standardized testing in later grades or the new Connecticut teacher evaluation system could have played a part in voting in the full-day kindergarten program.”

In her comments to the Board of Education at its meeting on March 7, resident Marissa Lowthert said, “Serious flaws remain unaddressed in the full-day kindergarten proposal, ranging from logistics and cost to research and adherence to board policy. This decision has far reaching consequences for taxpayers and young children — and both deserve a more complete proposal.”

Parents also voiced concern that the Board of Education is not adhering to its policies.

“This could have been prevented if the board simply followed their own policy 6141, which requires a formal document whenever a change like full-day kindergarten is proposed,” Ms. Lowthert added. “If the board followed its own policies, flaws would have been addressed before going in the budget. The policy process is designed to protect students and taxpayers from exactly what happened here.”

Ms. Lowthert is a member of Parents for Responsible Education, which attempted to procure a copy of the policy from the Board of Education, but was told one did not exist.

With that in mind, and with more than 140 signatures on Parents for Responsible Education’s petition, Ms. Lowthert said, she believes more time is needed for the introduction of full-day kindergarten to truly review the impact on the budget and the children. She thinks the current policy is the best solution.

“Extended-day is not ‘damaging’ any child, but implementation of an ill-defined proposal could,” she said.