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North Suburban News

Reading Lags Behind in Free Kindergarten

Aug 29, 2018 08:02AM ● By Katie Lovett

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READING – The majority of children across the state heading to kindergarten this fall will spend a full day in the classroom – a trend which has become much more mainstream since the early 2000s when full-day kindergarten began to boom in Massachusetts.

The major difference, however, is that many of those children are attending a full-day program for free, while other communities, including Reading, are forced to impose a fee on families seeking an extended day.

State law dictates that communities must offer a free half-day kindergarten session in the public schools. Many educators, however, feel that simply isn’t enough to adequately prepare young children for first grade and the more academic curriculum now taught in early primary grades. Parents and town officials have agreed, and enrollment in full-day programs will now surpass half-day classes.

To meet that demand, many cities and towns across the state have sought to provide a free full-day class, as critics of a fee-based program argue that it’s unfair for those families who cannot afford the tuition to be blocked from reaping the benefits of the longer day.

Those benefits are many, says Strategies for Children, a nonprofit that supports free full-day kindergarten.

While the state education standards calls for kindergartners in full- and half-day sessions to meet the same learning objectives, the group released research they say shows children who attend full-day kindergarten learn more in reading and math over the year than those in half-day programs and children in full-day receive 40 to 50 percent more instruction than their peers in half-day classes.

Children who attend full-day also spend 30 percent more time on reading and literacy instruction and 46 percent more time on mathematics than children in half-day programs, according to information released by the non-profit.

Public support for implementing full-day kindergarten has been strong. Eighty-one percent of Massachusetts voters support full-day kindergarten for all Massachusetts children, according to the Strategies for Children group.

And the majority of the state’s cities and towns do so for free.

This year, only 45 districts across the state are charging a tuition for full-day, the rest of the communities in Massachusetts offer free, full day kindergarten. The average tuition is $3,538, but the fee ranges from $1,800 in Westwood to $5,000 in Groton-Dunstable.

Out of communities that still require a tuition for full day kindergarten, families in Reading pay the third highest tuition in the state at $4,450 a year - only Action ($4,500) and Groton-Dunstable are more. Next-door neighbor North Reading charges $4,250. 

Reading Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Doherty says his community simply cannot afford the steep pricetag it would take to offer free full-day.

“It would cost an additional $1 million in the budget. We would have to cut other areas by $1 million,” he said during a recent phone interview. “Our budget is fairly lean.”

In 2012, the town pursued a plan to cut the tuition and offer the program for free, he added, but that was because town officials had the understanding the formula for Chapter 70, the state aid program for public schools, was going to change. That change didn’t come, however, and the plan was scrapped.

Doherty, who calls himself “a big advocate” of full-day kindergarten, said the town offers scholarships for those families who qualify for free or reduced-lunch, in an effort to allow those children to qualify for the longer day.

The $4,450 tuition rate has been calculated to meet all of the expenses necessary for that extra half-day, Doherty said, including teacher, paraeducator and specialists’ salaries.

Eighty-nine percent of Reading’s kindergartners will attend full-day this year, Doherty added.

Since the town began offering full-day kindergarten in 2006, the number of students enrolling each year has steadily increased, Doherty said.

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