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All-day 'K' plan faces crucial school board test Monday

Updated 11:15 am, Monday, April 8, 2013
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After a month of impassioned debate among parents and educators, the Board of Education is set to vote Monday on a proposal to introduce five full days of kindergarten in the coming school year.

"We are fortunate to have a town where there is such strong support for a high-caliber education," Elaine Whitney, the board's chairwoman, said Thursday. "The board has received a great deal of helpful input from a range of perspectives."

Recommended by Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon and elementary-school administrators, the new full-day plan for the 2013-14 school year would expand the district's kindergarten programming from its current schedule of three full days and two extended days each week to a full-day itinerary for every school day.

Administrators have described the full-day schedule as necessary to accommodate more instructional time needed to teach a more rigorous curriculum that will meet the expectations of the Common Core Standards, which will become the basis for state standardized tests in the 2014-15 school year.

In a full-day program, kindergartners would go to school four more hours per week compared to their current schedule. The new timetable would include 185 additional minutes per week for language-arts instruction, 75 more minutes for math and an extra 90 minutes for science and social studies.

No additional teachers or paraprofessionals would be needed to staff a full-day program, according to Cynthia Gilchrest, the district's director of elementary education.

A full-day program would save the district $50,000 through the elimination of midday bus runs, according to Landon.

However, the full-day plan has sparked a deeply divided public reaction, with parents packing the last two school board meetings to debate the proposal.

Among supporters, many say kindergartners would adapt to the new timetable and benefit academically from more instruction time. In a statement sent Thursday to the Westport News, Parent-Teacher Association Council Co-Presidents Ginny McGovern and Sheila Flinn said they support a full-day program.

"We have a very talented and deep administrative pool of highly educated personnel that feel this is in the best interest of all children, and, that being said, we do support the request for more time for our kindergartners," their statement said. "The Common Core standards that will be implemented have changed the scenario and we as a district need to meet these goals. The information that we have heard now several times is pretty compelling, and, taking the emotion out of the debate, we feel the time is now."

McGovern and Flinn added that their statement reflects only their position, not the views of all members of their organization.

But a number of other parents are strongly opposed to the proposal, arguing that kindergartners are not developmentally ready for five full days and the longer classes would force them to miss out on educational and recreational opportunities outside the classroom.

"Shouldn't we focus on instilling a love of reading, writing and math rather than stuffing it down their throats every minute of the school day?" Brooke Petrosino, a former Westport kindergarten teacher, said in a letter to the Westport News. "What about friendship-building time inside and out of school? Extended days allow for play dates and down time to process learning and just be a kid. Five long days will put a kibosh on play dates, and good luck teaching a five-year-old anything after 1:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday."

School board members have not publicly indicated how they plan to vote Monday. In May 2010, the board voted against a full-day schedule, but only three current board members served then on the panel.

Former board member Don O'Day, who voted against the proposal in 2010, said he now supports a full-day program.

"My vote to not implement full-day kindergarten was the only vote in my seven years on the board that I regret," he said Wednesday. "I strongly endorse full-day kindergarten. As a believer in addressing special-ed needs as soon as possible, I think that a broader kindergarten program highlights needs sooner than a less robust program."

Approximately 74 percent of Connecticut kindergartners are enrolled this year in full-day kindergarten, according to the state Department of Education. About 100 districts provide full-day kindergarten to all students, including Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford and Weston. Full-day programs provide 900 hours of schoolwork each year, according to the Department of Education's criteria.

Westport, Wilton and Redding are the three Fairfield County districts that offer extended kindergarten to all students, according to the Department of Education. An extended program offers between 450 and 900 hours of schoolwork each year.

Some districts, such as Fairfield, offer a choice of full-day and extended-day schedules. In Fairfield, however, all kindergartners will be in a full-day program in the 2013-14 year.

Wilton is the latest district in Fairfield County to adopt a full-day program, after approval last month from its Board of Education. Like Westport, a full-day schedule was enthusiastically endorsed by administrators but fervently opposed by many parents.

Full-day kindergarten will start in Wilton in the 2013-14 school year. It will provide more literacy and language instruction and better prepare students for the "increased demands" of reading, writing and math first-grade curriculum, according to a document posted on the Wilton Board of Education's website.

Wilton's full-day program also features an opt-out provision, which allows parents to pick up their children each day at 1:30 p.m., compared to a full-day dismissal time at 3:20 p.m.

The Westport full-day proposal does not include an opt-out clause. At the school board's last two meetings, some parents who support the full-day plan have suggested an opt-out as a compromise measure.

The board's Monday meeting is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. in the Staples High School cafeteria.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott