Public Comment Sought on Free Full-Day Kindergarten

The Derry School Board will seek public input before committing to full-day kindergarten for all students, and if it pursues full-day kindergarten, will introduce it as a warrant article rather than as part of the budget.

At its Nov. 10 meeting, the board heard a presentation from Laura Nelson, superintendent of schools for Derry’s School Administrative Unit (SAU) 10, on the feasibility of implementing free full-day kindergarten. The district can do it and has the space, she said. But at an estimated cost of $2,005,707, the district is moving slowly if at all.

Nelson said she was asked by the board to find out what full-day kindergarten for all Derry children would “look like.”

The current program includes the following:

• Ernest P. Barka School, two full-day classes, one half-day program with morning and afternoon classes;

• East Derry Memorial School, two full-day classes, one half-day program with morning and afternoon classes;

• Derry Village School, two full-day classes, one half-day program with morning and afternoon classes;

• Grinnell School, one full-day class, one half-day program with morning and afternoon classes; and

• South Range School, one full-day class and one half-day program with morning and afternoon classes.

That totals eight full-day and 10 half-day programs across the district.

Implementing full-day kindergarten for all five schools would result in the following:

• Barka, four full-day sessions;

• East Derry, four full-day sessions;

• Derry Village, four full-day sessions;

• Grinnell, three full-day sessions; and

• South Range, three full-day sessions.

The current policy is to offer half-day kindergarten free and full day for a fee, Nelson said.

Chairman Dan McKenna asked if there was space available to expand kindergarten and Nelson said based on the recommended space of 900 square feet, each building could accommodate an expanded program. The impact would be minimal, she said.

In other communities the problem with implementing full-day kindergarten was a lack of space, she said. But Derry has the space and would not have to use portable classrooms or implement a building program.

If implemented, the program would require four additional special education teachers; five additional special education paraprofessionals with the possibility of more, based on identifying student needs; and additional contracted services for speech and other needs. It would require additional sections of unified arts for each school and an additional lunch period at each school, requiring a half hour more of food service time. The program would also require five certified elementary school teachers and five paraprofessionals for general classroom needs.

The estimated cost for personnel, if the program is implemented, is $1,530,360.68, Nelson said.

Curriculum and room “start-up costs” for the additional full-day sessions are estimated at $49,670. With the addition of 2014-15 revenue, the total cost for implementing full-day kindergarten in 2016-17 would be $2,005,707.00.

What are the benefits? Nelson said with full-day kindergarten a child’s educational experience is “enriched tremendously.” They have more time for reading intervention, conferring with teachers, and Readers Workshop. A full-day program adds math intervention, writing and unified arts.

Grinnell Principal Mary Hill said the students in half-day receive the same “core” classes and attention, but in full day “We can go more in-depth, can go more hands-on. We can do things we can’t do in 2 1/2 hours.”

Board member Michelle McKinnon asked if the district had data showing the difference between full-day and half-day children when they progress to first grade.

Nelson said that Barka Principal Dan LaFleur and his kindergarten team did an extensive study last year. “Not only were the children from full day reading on grade level,” she said, “there were also fewer ‘behavior referrals.’”

LaFleur said, “There is a substantial difference. They have much better adjustment to the transition to first grade.”

McKenna asked why the full-day kindergarten, if expanded, would need its own lunch period. Nelson responded, “There is a limited amount of time for lunch. We’d like the kindergarteners to have lunch with other kindergarteners. We could cram them in to an upper-class lunch period, but that’s not what this is about.”

“We can’t process that many kids at one time,” Derry Village Principal Chris MacCallum added.

Hill said right now it works to have her full-day kindergarten eat lunch with the older children. But with two additional classes it would strain the resources, she added.

McKenna also asked for more details on the four additional special education teachers and Hill said, “Their IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) drive that. If a child needs academic support in the 2 1/2 hours of half-day kindergarten, they will need it in full day.”

“If they need a one-on-one para, they will need it in full day,” she added.

“We looked at the caseloads of each elementary school at each level,” Nelson said. “If we don’t add the special ed teachers and paras, each SPED teacher would have a case load of over 40, and that is not acceptable.”

And the longer a school day a child has, the more possible it is to identify needs, she added.

Meg Morse-Barry, a special education teacher with the district, said her granddaughter is in full-day kindergarten at South Range and is more self-confident and a better reader. “I hear her in the afternoon, reading a book to the video camera, and she nails it,” Morse-Barry said. “There is a cost but there is also benefit.”

But McKenna and board member Ken Linehan circled back to the cost. “I agree full-day kindergarten is beneficial,” Linehan said. “But my question is, is it the town’s responsibility to provide it for the community?”

Linehan observed, “We don’t provide Grade 13. We don’t provide free college. We don’t provide free preschool.”

Linehan said whatever the board decides to do this year, the full-day implementation should not be in the regular budget. “Maybe it can be a warrant article, so the townspeople can voice their opinion,” he said.

Linehan emphasized that he is not against full-day kindergarten. “I’m just wondering if it is the right choice for the district,” he said.

There is a cost, McKenna agreed.

The board agreed to revisit the issue in its Dec. 15 meeting and to seek public input.