Kindergarten parents upset about Falmouth schedule change

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FALMOUTH — Plans for a 2.5-day public school kindergarten program next fall that eliminates the option of five half-days aren’t sitting well with some parents.

Educators at Lunt School piloted the new program, which requires two full days and one half day, last school year with one kindergarten class, Principal John Flaherty said. This school year, two more 2.5-day classes were added, while the other two kindergarten classes continued with the traditional five half-day format.

“The teachers who have piloted the last two years with the program have lots of years’ experience teaching kindergarten and are totally sold on the 2 1/2-day program,” Flaherty said. “It gives them a slower pace for the children, allows them to focus more on academics, allows them the time to extend new concepts and they have seen the benefits in classroom tone. The pace feels slower and more relaxed.”

The benefits, he said, include 67 more hours of instruction a year, or the equivalent of 23 half-day classes. And with an increased focus on academics at the kindergarten level, the new program would give students not only more hours of instruction per year, but would give them two days a week that contain longer stretches of time with fewer disruptions. The program would also decrease their weekly bus trips from 10 to six.

The change will also save the district money, reducing bus driver salaries by more than $17,000, which does not reflect savings in fuel and mileage that Flaherty said could ultimately bring total savings to “upwards of $25,000.”

Parents in favor of the schedule change cite the two full days at home and two full days at school as the best of both worlds. Cristen Dilworth, of Carroll Street, works from home and said for her schedule, the 2.5-day class is ideal. Her daughter was in the pilot program last year and her son is in a 2.5-day class this year.

“My thought when they started it was that it was a great way for children who did half-day preschool to be introduced to full days,” she said.

Another mother pleased with the 2.5-day option said while it was “a little bit tough in the beginning,” the schedule made it easier for her to get a job. Grace Tucci-Libby, of Manhattan Way, said her son would come home exhausted from a full day of school but eventually, the longer days reinforced lessons and helped him build friendships. She said she would definitely choose the schedule again.

But, although they speak highly of Flaherty, some parents are less than enthusiastic about his decision to switch to the new program.

For some, like Josh Barrett, of Charlotte Drive, the dissatisfaction is primarily over the process. The decision, Barrett said, appeared to be made without the public’s input.

“What was broken about the half-day system?” he said. “Maybe I could be convinced on the 2 1/2 days, but I love being allowed to be engaged in the process.”

Other opponents also complained about what Barrett called a decision “driven by a survey of parents who elected to put their children in (the 2.5-day) program.”

In a letter to the Falmouth School Board earlier this month, Karyl Hazard, of Quaker Lane, said “stakeholders in this decision have not been equitably or adequately engaged.”

While parents who selected the 2.5-day program were given a survey to provide feedback, parents of students in the traditional program were not given that opportunity, she said. “Simply put, the feedback substantiating the success and driving support of this program is 100 percent biased, as it very clearly represents the common interests/preferences of a select group of families in the community.”

Hazard’s objections to the plan also include the added child care expense with the new schedule and the lack of regular routine for her child.

Gretchen Lacombe, of Cornerstone Drive, echoed Hazard’s concern about a routine. While she would be satisfied with a five full-day kindergarten program, the irregular schedule of the new plan and the fact that surrounding communities don’t appear to be adopting it have her concerned.

“To go (to school) on one day and not on another day is very inconsistent for kids 5 and 6 years old,” Lacombe said. “We don’t feel we’ve gotten a real answer as to why they’re doing this. If this is such a great program, why aren’t others doing it?”

More than 80 percent of school districts offer full-day kindergarten five days a week and recent studies back up the merits of a full-time program, Flaherty said. He acknowledged he knows of no studies that have been done on 2.5-day programs.

While Flaherty would like to offer a full-day kindergarten program in Falmouth, he said until the new elementary school is completed in 2011, there isn’t enough space. Even after the new school is completed, with dedicated space for all-day kindergarten, Flaherty said the decision to offer it would depend on the budget.

Falmouth is not alone in its financial struggle to make full-day kindergarten a reality. Although Yarmouth would like to move to full-day kindergarten, it still offers only the traditional five half-day program because of budget constraints, Yarmouth School Superintendent Ken Murphy said. Falmouth’s plan to move to the 2.5-day program is “a nice transition step,” he added.

“Full day as far as teaching and learning would make life better for teachers and students,” he said.

The Yarmouth district does offer half-day child care for a fee at the elementary school, an option that cuts down on the students’ transitions, Murphy said.

Tom Eismeier, principal of Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, said his school offers a half-day program as well, because the cost of a full-day program is “prohibitive.”

After hearing about Falmouth’s plan, Eismeier said he thought he might suggest it to the Cape Elizabeth School Board for consideration because of the academic benefits of longer segments of time.

In School Administrative District 51, where they began full-day kindergarten two years ago, Susie Robbins, principal of Mabel Wilson School, said second-graders who were the first class to go through the new program are reflecting positive results.

“We are able to offer a developmentally appropriate program, where students can have fun and sing songs and take a rest and have appropriate time for transition,” she said.

Parents who don’t feel their children are ready for the full-day program are allowed to take them out mid-way through the day, Robbins said. But only a few parents have made that choice and after a few months, all the children usually stay for the full day, she said.

With many in Falmouth touting the new schedule as being better for working parents, many others say it will hinder the availability of child care and most likely, make that care more expensive.

Jana Bagshaw, owner and director of Little Hands Daycare and Learning Center on Leighton Road, said the new program would force her to rearrange schedules, although she expects pricing to remain the same.

“I don’t think if I’d had the choice I would have chosen the schedule, but we’re trying our best to accommodate,” she said.

At Little Red Caboose, on Rich Way, owner Lisa Lalumiere said it will impact their schedules and possibly their enrollment.

“Some children could still benefit from a half-day rogram; it would have been nice if they had just left it alone,” she said.

But Flaherty said after many hours of discussions with his staff, the decision to move to the 2.5-day model was made in the best interest of the children.

“The half-day program just isn’t adequate to meet the growing academic demands of kindergarten,” he said.

An informational meeting about the schedule will be held from 6-7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31, at Lunt School. Parents of incoming kindergarten students have been invited. Other parents may also attend.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or