All-day kindergarten pilot plan draws fire in Cape Elizabeth

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The School Board’s proposal for a full-day kindergarten pilot program in the fiscal 2014 school budget is raising concerns about fairness with some parents, who say they may as a result reject the entire budget.

The program would create two full-day kindergarten sessions at Pond Cove Elementary School, reducing the number of half-day classes from six to four. Adding the program would require no additional staff or space, according to the School Department budget.

Since the pilot is limited to two classes, a lottery system will be used if there is excess demand.

And while the piloted full-day kindergarten will not have a budget impact, about a dozen parents attended the Monday night Town Council budget adoption meeting to oppose the program. Only two spoke publicly.

Sara Closson, whose daughter will be entering kindergarten next year and spoke at the meeting, said Wednesday she was “shocked” when she heard the board was planning to run a pilot program and that a lottery could be necessary. And although she favors full-day kindergarten, she said, it should be offered to all students so no one is left behind.

“There’s a firestorm among all kindergarten parents,” Closson said. “My biggest concerns are that there are going to be students at a disadvantage, not because they’re not capable, but because the School Board decided to implement a program that left them behind.”

Closson said excluding some students from full-day kindergarten is discriminatory and will likely hurt the self esteem and learning development of students in the half-day program.

“It just seems like horrible policy,” she said, adding that she will vote against the budget if the pilot program is included. “I would say do it the right way, where everyone is included.”

School Board Chairman John Christie said all-day kindergarten enhances early childhood education, which is proved to impact long-term education success. But the pilot is needed, he said, because school officials first must gauge interest to see if there is enough support to implement it across the board.

“We don’t have a complete sense of the support for full-day (from) kindergarten parents,” he said. “Some parents have expressed their desire for continuation of half-day kindergarten.”

The School Department expects to have the results of a survey of parents by May 10.

Christie said the pilot program is also intended to test the impact of full-day kindergarten on students. Currently, 90 percent of students in the half-day program are proficient in reading and mathematics, he said.

“What we hope to do with the pilot of full-day kindergarten is to show we can improve upon that number,” he said. “I don’t think we’re disadvantaging anybody by adding a pilot full-day program. We’re adding services, not taking them away.”

Although enrollments have declined by 11 percent in the last five years, the School Department is planning for about 100 kindergartners, up from 89 this year.

Four teachers will oversee the 36 kids expected to be enrolled in the full-day program, with the remaining 64 in half-day, Superintendent of Schools Meredith Nadeau said.

To expand all the classes to full-day would be too expensive this year, Christie said, noting that the budget cuts 5.3 full-time staff positions.

He said the board expects the pilot to be successful, but that it will require time and work commitments from teachers and administrators to research how to do it effectively.

“It takes time, energy, focus and research in order to do this right,” Christie said. “The faculty and administration are visiting other full-day programs and doing a lot of work to get this pilot off the ground.”

Most school departments in Maine already have full-day programs. Cape Elizabeth is one of about a dozen departments that do not, although it may be required to if a bill now in the Legislature is passed.

The bill, L.D. 1143, sponsored by Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, would require all districts in the state to have full-day kindergarten by 2017.

That’s the way it should be, Closson said.

“Piloting is a way to try out new ideas. It’s 2013, this shouldn’t have happened,” she said. “We are not spearheading the full-day K campaign. We already know how it’s done; just look at the surrounding communities. That Cape Elizabeth is one of the last in the state to offer full-day kindergarten just doesn’t make sense.”

Closson said if the program can’t be instituted for all students this year, the board should wait until next year, instead of running a pilot.

“If the school is so adamant about the lack of resources then we should delay implementation until all students can participate,” she said. “Don’t do it halfway simply because we don’t have the money in the budget this year.”

Pond Cove Elementary School is hosting a meeting May 8 at 9 a.m. to discuss the kindergarten pilot program. The school budget referendum is May 14.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow Will on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

This story was corrected on May 3, 2013.