Kindergartners at Westport's five public elementary schools will move to a five-day, full-day schedule in the next school year, after the Board of Education approved the change by a 6-1 vote Monday.
The board made that decision despite strenuous opposition expressed by many parents at the meeting.
The full-day schedule for the 2013-14 academic year will 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 every class day.
Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon and elementary school administrators recommended the new schedule. They have argued in board meetings over the last five weeks that a full-day program is needed to allocate more instructional time to teach a demanding curriculum required by the Common Core Standards, which will become the basis for state standardized tests in the 2014-15 school year.
"We believe that this change will benefit all kids -- that is the very bright, those who are struggling and those in the middle," Landon said. "And it will give us opportunities to do it with more time and more differentiation, so we better serve kids at all levels."
In the full-day program, kindergartners will go to school four more hours per week compared to their current schedule. The new timetable will 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. To accommodate those allotments, kindergartners' technology and library media programming will be incorporated into their content-area curricula.
Cynthia Gilchrest, the district's director of elementary education, argued that students would see long-term benefits from more instructional time.
"If we can gain 120 minutes [per day] for our balanced literacy program, which we have been doing extensive development in, we believe we will have stronger readers," she said.
No additional teachers or paraprofessionals will be hired to staff the full-day kindergarten program.
The new schedule will save the district $50,000 through the elimination of midday bus runs, according to Landon.
Divided views among parents
About 100 people, most of them parents, attended Monday's meeting. Despite administrators' arguments, many parents voiced resolute opposition to the full-day schedule. Those responses mirrored the strong criticism that the plan faced at the two previous school board meetings.
"Yes, we have the core curriculum standards to meet, but it seems to me that the core curriculum is just the latest excuse," said Kim Sholty, the mother of a 4-year-old who will enter kindergarten in the fall. "I want my son to thrive in kindergarten. I want him to love it, just like my 8-year-old did. I want him to be happy; not just handle it."
A number of parents also signaled their skepticism that a full-day schedule is needed to meet the criteria of the Common Core Standards.
"We're doing great; we don't need to make this change," said Brian Power, the father of a 5-year-old set to enter kindergarten in the fall. "My question is: What's next? In three years, will we be looking at 40-hour week for kids. Where does it stop? I believe that there are other levers that we can pull to continue to exceed the Common Core."
Other parents said they are concerned that a full-day schedule would put stress on kindergartners.
"I would hate to see [the loss of] those extra four hours of being a child and just sitting around and playing or relaxing or doing whatever they want," said Susie Armstrong, the mother of a 5-year-old who will enter kindergarten in the fall. "Let our kids have those four hours and continue having that time to be a kid that little bit longer in their lives."
But a number of parents spoke in support of the full-day program.
"The additional time provides significant benefits to children with special or medical needs," said Nancy Mahmoud, the mother of two children with special needs, including a 4-year-old who will start kindergarten in the fall. "These children are frequently pulled out of class several times a week, or in the case of my son, several times a day every day. A longer school day allows more flexibility in providing therapies and necessary interventions to these children."
Several parents who back full-day kindergarten said they trust administrators' judgment.
"It is because of the educators and administration that we have an exceptional school system," said Larry Perlstein, the father of a five-year-old, who will enter kindergarten in the fall. "I am more than willing to trust my child's welfare in the hands of these exceptional people, and I look forward to having a full-day program."
Board members back proposal
After public comment on the plan concluded, board members quickly moved to support the full-day kindergarten schedule, a contrast with the board's rejection in May 2010 of a full-day proposal by Landon. The advent of Common Core appeared to be a major factor in building the panel's support this year for a full-day program.
"The Common Core is not itself a curriculum, but what we're doing is responding to a change," said Michael McGovern, the board's vice chairman. "What we're looking at isn't how our kindergartners perform next year, it's how they perform in ten years when they're ninth graders."
Jennifer Tooker, a first-term board member who was not on the panel in 2010, also said she backs the need for more instructional time.
"It takes time to let people play on the floor, it takes time to let people experience, and it takes time to let kids sort of tell you the way they want to learn and respond to it," she said. "We will see that we are delivering better differentiated instruction if we let our kids spend time with teachers."
Mark Mathias cast the dissenting vote. He expressed confidence that the district could meet the Common Core Standards with its existing kindergarten schedule and added that kindergartners benefited from their extra time out of the classroom.
"I also think kids need time just to do stuff or to do nothing," he said. "Maybe it's not productive in the sense of learning something ... I don't necessarily think we need our kids in kindergarten filling their time with really productive stuff. I think sometimes down time can be remarkably productive."
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