Full day kindergarten coming to Sparta

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:48

    Plans underway to reopen Mohawk Avenue School for preschool, kindergarten, By Fran Hardy Sparta — Half-day kindergarten may soon be a thing of the past in Sparta. The school district is looking to implement a full-day kindergarten program next year, Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton announced at the Board of Education meeting last month. He said the kindergarten classes, along with the current pre-school program, will be held in the Mohawk Avenue School, which used to hold only fifth grade classes until the district realigned the elementary schools during the staff and budget cuts of 2010 and closed the school. The district’s central office staff and the Board of Education office is still in one wing of Mohawk Avenue School, but the remainder of the building has been empty since the fifth grade was relocated to Alpine School. Morton said he has been in consultation with state officials who are in favor of the plan. He said the district will be working with the state to meet the facility requirements of using the classrooms for kindergarten and pre-school, which is primarily to adapt some of the bathrooms. Morton said district officials are currently researching what will be necessary to smoothly implement the full-day kindergarten program, including additions and adaptations to the curriculum, and the need for additional staff. He estimates at this point that least six or seven more teachers would be needed for the program. Although it is too early to tell how much all this will cost, Morton said funding the full-day kindergarten will not increase taxes. He explained, “We will make full-day kindergarten a priority within the existing budget.” Kindergarten not required in New Jersey According to a 2007 Population Profile of the United States from the US Census Bureau, 3.9 million children are enrolled in kindergarten across the country. However, New Jersey is one of seven states that do not require that school districts offer either half-day or full day kindergarten. But of the state’s 600 school districts, most offer at least half-day programs and according to data from the New Jersey Department of Education, 365 districts offer full day kindergarten programs. In Sussex County, ten schools districts offer full-day programs. Education Commission of the States data from September, 2008 indicates 43 states require school districts to offer either half- or full day kindergarten, while only ten states require that districts offer full-day programs. New Jersey requires pre-school for special needs Although kindergarten is not mandated in New Jersey public schools, pre-school programs for special needs children are required. Part of this requirement is that there must be at least 50 percent plus one regular education children integrated with the special needs students. This means that if a classroom has 12 special needs children, there must be 13 regular education children as well. Sparta holds a yearly lottery to select the regular education students for this free public pre-school. Currently, Sparta has three pre-school classes which are held in Helen Morgan School, with 48 total students. There are also three classes for children who are LLD (language learning disabled) and these serve 20 students. What are the benefits of full-day kindergarten? The popularity of full-day kindergarten programs has grown exponentially over the last several years and most research indicates there are both academic and social/emotional benefits for children who attend. Although some researchers say the academic benefits in terms of children’s language arts and math skills are more short term and often even out with children who did not attend full-day kindergarten by around the third grade, most agree that children who attend a full-say program are at least better prepared for first grade. A study on the benefits of full-day kindergarten published by the Indiana Department of Education says “Teachers reported significantly greater progress for full-day children in literacy, math, general learning skills, and social skills.” The National Education Association calls full-day kindergarten “a sound educational investment” that can “narrow achievement gaps between various groups of students.” The study says that full-day kindergarten students show greater achievement gains in reading and math than half-day students and the longer school day prepares them for their first grade schedule. A study on full-day kindergarten published by the Massachusetts School Psychologists Association states, “Just the length of instructional time alone may produce some of the benefits that researchers find in full-day kindergarten programs. However there is an enormous variation in how time is spent in full-day classrooms in the United States, with some programs filled with educationally relevant activity and some programs merely providing childcare.” That full-day public kindergarten could be considered free child care is a point that some critics raise. However, if the program has an appropriate curriculum, both working parents and children can benefit. When children are in a productive learning environment for a full school day, most research shows it is academically advantageous for them and it eliminates the need for longer hours in day care that parents must pay for after a half-day program. For some children, going from a half-day pre-school to a full-day kindergarten and being thrust into such “big-kid” activities as riding a bus, eating in a cafeteria, and being away from home for so many hours can be daunting, especially when they are barely five years old. Educators say most children usually adapt quickly, even when the first few weeks of kindergarten present a difficult adjustment. Since children are not required to attend kindergarten, parents should make the decision on the readiness of their children. What should a full-day kindergarten program include? Whereas kindergarten is intended to lay the academic foundation for what children will learn in first grade, researchers agree that it should not be an overly rigorous environment that pushes children too hard. Early childhood educators agree that the development of the young child is key and all learning activities and methods should focus on their development rather than their achievement. The best kind of learning for young children is hands-on, learning by doing, and emersion in activities and explorations that involve the whole child. The New Jersey Department of Education Division of Early Childhood Education published “New Jersey Kindergarten Implementation Guidelines” on April 1, 2011. The study examines curriculum, assessment, environment, and teaching practices for high quality kindergarten programs and suggests a “balanced daily schedule accommodating play based learning across content areas.” As updates on Sparta’s plans fore full-day kindergarten program become available, these will be shared at BOE meetings and on the district website at www.sparta.org.