Full-day kindergarten program delayed in Avon Grove
● By Steven Hoffman
The Avon Grove School District will not be moving forward with a plan to implement full-day kindergarten in time for the start of the 2016-2017 school year.
After months of planning and extensive discussions, the Avon Grove School Board was deadlocked, 4-4, on a vote to approve full-day kindergarten at the Jan. 28 meeting, effectively delaying the implementation of the program for at least a year.
School board president Bonnie Wolff, Herman Engel, Edward Farina, and vice president Brian Gaerity voted in favor of the motion to authorize full-day kindergarten for 2016-2017, while board members Charles Beatty III, Jeffrey Billig, Pattie Lyons, and Patrick Walker voted against it. Board member Tracy Lisi was not present at the meeting.
The school district has had discussions regarding full-day kindergarten, off and on, for many years. The most recent effort to expand the kindergarten program grew out of the development, in 2014, of a district-wide strategic plan that identified full-day kindergarten as a priority in the effort to boost academic achievement. The administration presented a formal proposal to launch a full-day kindergarten program for all students in September of last year, generating considerable interest in the community. Many residents favored the full-day program because of the academic, social, and emotional benefits for students, while others worried that the costs associated with a full-day kindergarten program exceed the benfits.
Opinions from both sides of the argument shared during the discussions about the kindergarten program at the Jan. 28 meeting. Gaerity made the motion to approve full-day kindergarten, and the discussion among school board members began.
Gaerity, one of the leading supporters of the full-day kindergarten initiative, outlined the reasons why he thought the time was right to expand the program. He noted that there are currently 231 students enrolled in the half-day program at Penn London Elementary School, but parents in the district choose other options—the Avon Grove Charter School, the Assumption BVM, the Church of the Nazarene, and others—because of the full-day kindergarten programs.
“According to recent district surveys, most parents currently in the half-day program would prefer a full-day program,” Gaerity explained. “Most district parents who are considering enrolling in the full-day Kindergarten program at the Charter School would prefer to enroll in a full-day Kindergarten program in the district if one is offered. Clearly there is a very strong demand for a full-day kindergarten program among parents with young children.”
Gaerity explained that transitioning to a full-day kindergarten program would continue the district's efforts to “restore support to areas that had been neglected or cut over the past several years, primarily instruction, facilities, and technology.”
The administration and school board, Gaerity added, “created a framework for systematically addressing the six major strategic plan initiatives: full-day kindergarten, high school bell schedule, communications, professional development, facilities and one-to-one technology. That framework has guided our work ever since and is the driving force behind our decisions...at the end of the day, I believe that the research supports universal full-day kindergarten in a district like ours. Full-day kindergarten has the potential to help all students perform at or above grade level by grade 3. For our low-income and Hispanic students, it could be a game-changer.”
Beatty, who has challenged the effectiveness and affordability of a full-day kindergarten program over the last several months, reiterated some of his primary concerns.
Beatty said that the study that the district utilized to show that the full-day kindergarten program would produce good results for students was only a preliminary look at the impact that the program had. He countered that three other studies that he looked at suggested that any benefits that full-day kindergarten had for students were gone by the time that those students reached the third grade.
“Between half-day and full-day there is not a significant difference,” Beatty said.
He also talked about his concerns that the full-day kindergarten program would be expensive, and would guarantee that the district would see a tax increase each year. Beatty pointed out that the district currently has six teachers who are able to handle the 12 half-day kindergarten classes. If the program is expanded, at least 12 teachers will be needed instead of the six teachers. This will increase the average cost of educating each kindergarten student, which would impact the annual budget.
There will be infrastructure costs as well, and Avon Grove will need to add modular classrooms to the Penn London Elementary School if a certain number of students return to the district. These increased costs will make it even harder for the district to balance its annual budget.
The Act 1 Index limit restricts how much a school district can raise taxes without going to the voters for approval through a referendum.
Beatty acknowledged that the district is currently in a strong financial position, but it is already relying on its fund balance to pay for other educational initiatives.
If Avon Grove continues to do that, Beatty said, “By 2019...we will be out of fund balance.”
He said that the local citizen group, Avon Grove Taypayers for Responsible Spending, prepared some cost projections that showed that taxes could rise by 20 percent—or more—in just the next six years.
Walker expressed his doubts about the usefulness of those budget numbers because of all the unknown variables.
“Those are big numbers and a lot of assumptions,” Walker said. “If you got ten different people to do that study, you would get ten different results. When we talk about going past one year, you're talking about a lot of assumptions. This study went out six years.”
Beatty said that the district should prepare an analysis of the projected costs so that residents would have an understanding of the financial impact of full-day kindergarten. He made a motion to table the discussion on full-day kindergarten. Walker seconded the motion, explaining that the board still didn't know what the full-day kindergarten program would look like if it were approved.
“I do want full-day kindergarten, but I need to know what I am approving,” Walker said. “I still have questions. I want to see more details of it.”
Billig also said that he wanted more information. “I am in favor of full-day kindergarten,” he said. “I believe that we have to give [students] the best chance of success in a competitive environment. But I want to know what we are foregoing if we make this decision.”
The motion to table the discussion foreshadowed that the school board would be deadlocked on the issue.
Beatty, Walker, Billig, and Lyons voted in support of the motion to table the discussion; Wolff, Gaerity, Engel, and Farina, voted against it. Without the support of a majority of the board, the motion failed. The discussion continued.
Engel said that he was concerned that a delay in implementing full-day kindergarten would mean that the district would ultimately abandon plans. He added that it's the school board's role to provide direction to the administration.
Farina talked about how the full-day program would allow teachers the chance to give extra attention to studnets.
Wolff noted that the full-day kindergarten conversation has been taking place in Avon Grove for many years.
“Several years back, we used grant money to fund full-day kindergarten with measurable success for our at-risk students. When that money went away, unfortunately, the program went away, leaving many students without that extra help they needed. In 2013, during the strategic planning process, approximately 40 people representing all the demographics of the district met over four days to discuss the direction in which the district should head. They identified full-day kindergarten as a way to increase the learning opportunities for our youngest students. This community group felt it was important enough to recommend putting it into the district’s strategic plan.”
Wolff, who has served on the school board since 2003, expanded on some of the reasons why she favored bringing full-day kindergarten to Avon Grove.
“I believe the return on investment will be there,” she said. “Early intervention could save remediation costs down the road...Studies show that full-day kindergarten gives economically disadvantaged students a boost. Other studies have shown that long-term achievement of full-day kindergarteners—in the form of higher GPA’s, SAT or ACT scores—is higher on average. Some studies indicate that it improves the social skills of all students. Others have looked at the behavior of students in half- versus full-day kindergarten and found that those in full-day kindergarten had better child-to-child interactions.
“Early childhood education matters. I believe full-day kindergarten is the best decision for our students and our district.”
After the lengthy discussion, the school board voted and came up deadlocked, 4-4, leaving the matter unresolved for now.
“This doesn't mean the program is off the table,” Wolff said in a statement released by the district. “Unfortunately, we were not able to get consensus from the board this evening. Some of our school directors wanted more time to study various aspects of full-day kindergarten before moving forward with implementation.”
Gaerity admitted that he was disappointed in the outcome of the vote, but added, “I am hopeful that full-day kindergarten will be implemented in 2017-18. Only one board member challenges the benefits of full-day kindergarten. The other three board members who voted against implementation in 2016 indicated support for full-day kindergarten, but felt they didn’t have enough information to make a decision [on Jan. 28]. Hopefully, their questions will be answered over the next couple of months and the board can make a commitment before the end of the school year to implement full-day kindergarten in 2017.”
Beatty said that he was pleased that the board didn't vote to move forward with full-day kindergarten until all the questions and concerns are addressed. Board members will be submitting their questions and seeking additional information from the administration, Beatty said.
Beatty said that he also has continuing questions about the benefits of full-day kindergarten when compared to the costs.
“I'm still waiting for a large, independent study that shows me that the benefits are there,” he said, adding that it might be a good idea to seek information from officials from the Chester County schools that currently have a full-day kindergarten program. He would like to see data that shows that students made academic gains as a result of the full-day kindergarten program.
Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said that he expected the school board to continue the conversation regarding full-day kindgarten, perhaps as early as the next committee-of-the-whole meeting on Feb. 11. He reiterated the administration's commitment to full-day kindergarten for Avon Grove.
“I do believe a full-day kindergarten program is what's best for our students,” Marchese said. “We will utilize the additional time to continue our efforts to bring a full-day kindergarten program to the district.”