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Chester County Press

Discussion about full-day kindergarten attracts large crowd in Avon Grove

12/21/2015 01:26PM ● By Steven Hoffman

The Avon Grove School District’s discussions about implementing a full-day kindergarten program continued to evolve at the Dec. 10 meeting of the committee-of-the-whole, as the school board edged closer to a decision about whether the kindergarten program will be expanded for the 2016-2017 school year.

District officials have been actively working on issues related to full-day kindergarten in a number of different ways, and Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said that the board will soon need to make a decision one way or another as to whether the district will introduce full-day kindergarten for the start of the new school year.

“We are a the point where we need direction,” Marchese said.

Dr. Kalia Reynolds, the district’s director of elementary teaching and learning, began the presentation by reviewing results of recent surveys. She explained that out of 1,204 respondents for the in-district poll, 81 percent of the people said that they supported full-day kindergarten, while 19 percent replied that they did not.

Another survey question asked respondents what the school of choice would be for an incoming kindergarten student if the district offered full-day kindergarten for the next school year. Of the 464 people who responded to this question, 354 people, or 76 percent, responded that Avon Grove schools would be their choice. A survey of parents of charter school or preschool students found that 77 percent of the respondents supported full-day kindergarten.

Avon Grove officials have discussed the possibility of adding full-day kindergarten many times through the years, but the financial limitations always prevented the district from moving forward. Proponents say that full-day kindergarten would offer Avon Grove students more time to work and learn, and the students would have a stronger foundation for early academic achievement.

In Chester County, the Kennett, Octorara, Coatesville, Phoenixville school districts currently offer full-day kindergarten to students.

Marchese led the presentation about the full-day kindergarten enrollment projections. The district’s current kindergarten enrollment is approximately 228 students. Approximately 110 Avon Grove students attend charter schools, with the opportunity to attend full-day kindergarten classes as a major attraction. One of the biggest challenges facing Avon Grove officials is projecting exactly how many of those students will return to the district if it offers full-day kindergarten.

If the maximum class size is kept at 22 students, Penn London Elementary’s capacity for kindergarten is 264 students. If the maximum class size for kindergarten is increased to 24 students, the maximum capacity is 288 students, giving the district the chance to add about 60 students overall. If the district utilizes modular classrooms and limits the class size to 22 students, Avon Grove could accommodate 308 students. If the class size is increased to 24, the maximum capacity increases to 336 students, more than 100 students over the current enrollment.

The accuracy of these projections is important to the district. Marchese said that, according to the latest and best projections, there will be between 271 and 285 students enrolled in kindergarten if Avon Grove makes the switch to full-day kindergarten. If 57 of the kindergarten students enrolled in other schools return, it would bring the district’s total number of kindergarten students to approximately 290. That is very close to what Marchese referred to as “the tipping point.” Any more students than that and the district would very likely be unable to accommodate them in the existing facilities. Modular classrooms would have to be used, and that would increase the costs of starting up the full-day kindergarten program. If more students are enrolled in full-day kindergarten than the district expects, it may be necessary to increase class sizes—and few people would be in favor of that.

Marchese observed that, while the projections are based on the best information available, there simply isn’t a crystal ball available to them to know exactly how many students will return to Avon Grove for full-day kindergarten. As a public school, Avon Grove must accept all students within the boundary who want to enroll, even if that creates an issue of overcrowding.

School board vice president Brian Gaerity said that he would prefer planning for modular classrooms right away instead of running the risk of a serious issue of overcrowding in the classrooms.

“We’re going to have to have modulars, whether it’s in year two or year one. I think that’s the smarter way to go,” Gaerity explained.

According to district officials, there will be a potential reduction in annual expenses if they are able to reduce the number of students who attend charter schools. For each student that attends a charter school, the district must make a tuition payment—approximately $7,900 for each student. For students who need special education services, the tuition amount is nearly $21,000 per student per year. The reduction on the expenditure side would offset some of the costs of implementing full-day kindergarten.

The administration has put its support behind expanding to full-day kindergarten for 2016-2017, but some people have advocated slowing the process down. School board member Charles Beatty said that instead of making a decision about full-day kindergarten in isolation, it should be part of a larger discussion about the district’s school facilities.

“I would rather see a master plan,” Beatty said. He noted that if the implementation of full-day kindergarten does, in fact, bring more students back to the district it will have an impact on the other schools. Modulars are already in use at the high school.

The discussion about full-day kindergarten attracted a large audience, and many people had opinions that they wanted to share with district officials. Public comment stretched for more than an hour, with more people vocalizing their support for full-day kindergarten than those who were against it.

“We know that full-day kindergarten is right for children,” said Carolyn Hammerschmidt, who serves on the Penn London PTA.

Several other residents talked about how full-day kindergarten would improve the students’ academic performance. “It’s about the kids. They are the future of our community,” said Megan Knoll.

Other people were concerned about the impact that the full-day kindergarten program would have on the budget and, consequently, on the district’s taxpayers.

Donna Dea was one of those who spoke against moving forward with full-day kindergarten at this time.

“I’m an educator,” Dea said. “I think school is important, but we only have so much money. Tax increases are an issue.”

Jim Russell questioned why only parents of school-age children in the district were included in the survey. He said that the surveys should have been distributed to taxpayers as well to get a better understanding of the district’s views as a whole.

Still others called for the district to delay a decision on the kindergarten program until there is a district-wide plan in place for all the facilities.

“I agree with Mr. Beatty. You need to look at the program as a whole before you decide anything,” said resident Rich Cohen.

Others said that the educational benefits of full-day kindergarten were worth the increase in taxes.

“As a taxpayer, I fully support [full-day kindergarten] even though it won’t benefit my kids,” said resident Brian Hammond.

According to the timeline that was released two months ago, district officials will visit full-day kindergarten programs in other districts this month and next, and they will also conduct research on the instructional schedules in January of 2016. A series of parent informational forums will be held from January to May of next year. Registration for the kindergarten program will be underway by May, and district officials will be working on staffing the full-day kindergarten program between April and July.

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