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UPDATED: Reading Schools to Separate Half and Full Day Kindergarten

Feb 04, 2019 07:26AM ● By Lisa Redmond

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READING – After initially informing the district that the town of Reading would have an integrated Kindergarten model, Reading Superintendent, John Doherty reversed course and will have a traditional Kindergarten program.

"I have gone on record and truly believe that an integrated kindergarten program is not the preferred kindergarten experience that we would like our students to have," Doherty write in an email to parents. 

According to Doherty, the School Committee and principals were able to identify an additional classroom space at Joshua Eaton for the next school year.

"As a long-term solution, we have begun the process of an elementary space planning study which will review our projected enrollment over the next 10 years, program needs, and the space needed to accommodate those changes," Doherty wrote. "It is our goal that this will lead to a long-term space solution for our elementary and preschool students."

Original Story Below. 

Squeezed by a large class of kindergarten students next year and a lack of classrooms, School Superintendent John Doherty told upset parents recently that the school district will use the “integrated’’ Kindergarten model where full-day and half-day kindergarten students share classrooms creating a “less than optimal’’ learning environment.

During his Jan. 28 presentation of the School Committee-approved $46.5 million FY2020 school budget – a 3.6 percent increase over this year’s budget – Doherty explained that 282 students or nearly 90 percent of next year’s 318 kindergarten class have enrolled in full-day classes, while 36 students have enrolled in half-day classes.

 With no extra classrooms in most of the elementary schools, Doherty said he had no choice but to combine half-day and full-day classes at Barrows, Birch Meadow, Joshua Eaton and Wood End elementary schools.

Killam Elementary School has available classroom space so it will offer the “traditional” model of separate classrooms for half-day and full-day, Doherty said.

This fulfills a priority of parents as their children are able to stay in neighborhood schools, Doherty said.

Doherty said he has been working on this problem for months. “Unfortunately, we have a situation where there is not enough classroom space for separate full-day, half-day classes,’’ Doherty told the group of angry parents.

“We were warned this was coming due to the large number of students,” said Committee member Linda Snow Dockser.

Parents at the School Committee meeting complained they felt “blindsided’’ by the news and one parent described the decision as being “slapped in the face,’’ because they were told the integrated model was a “less than ideal’’ learning environment and believed it wouldn’t be used.

The problem, the parents explained, is that the students who enroll in the free, half-day program essentially dictating the educational program for the full-day tuition students. Parent Eileen Pruitt said full-day students are shortchanged because the classes follow a half-day schedule.

“Ninety percent of the kids get jammed with instruction for three hours’’ and the remainder of the day, after the half-day students leave, is reinforcement of materials and recess, Pruitt said.

Parent Melissa Murphy agreed. “You are taking a full day and cramming everything into three hours,’’ she said.

When Murphy noted that Doherty seemed annoyed by the parents’ comments, Doherty said, “I’m not annoyed… I am handcuffed, that’s the problem. I don’t have any other option.’’

Assistant Superintendent Christine Kelley said she has discussed the issue with elementary school principals.  “It’s not optimal,’’ she admitted, “You have a lot to fit in a very quick morning.’’ But she added she is confident “the kids are in good hands.’’

Many Reading kindergarten parents bite the financial bullet and pay the $4,500 annual tuition believing that full-day kindergarten will better prepare their children for the educational demands they face in first grade.

“Thirty-six kids are making the decision for the 90 percent,’’ Pruitt said. “That’s what we are paying $4,500 in tuition for?’’ she asked.

Reading is one of a handful of communities that offertuition-based, full-day kindergarten, while half-day kindergarten is paid for by the school district.

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. 

Parent Erin Gaffin said, “I’m just astounded that this is where we are after all the drama that went down last year.’’ Elementary school principals last year penned a letter stressing the educational value of the traditional kindergarten program.

Gaffin disagreed with Doherty that kindergarten parents were informed at several meetings late last year that using the integrated model was a possibility.

“We all walked out of that room saying, ‘Thank God, we finally got rid of that,’ ‘’she said. To learn that this is the model being used next school year is a “slap in the face,’’ she said.

Dockster responded, “I completely understand how the spoken and written message can get convoluted. This is not an optimal program, but it is the reality of space constraints.’’

“The overarching message was that traditional full-day kindergarten was the best for the kids. Now you are saying you can’t do what is best for our kids?’’ Gaffin asked.

Doherty reminded the group that this isn’t just a problem next school year. The lack of classroom space will follow this group of students through the grades, Doherty said.

Gaffin suggested “looking outside the box’’ for possible solutions.

Committee member Charles Robinson suggested possibly busing some children to schools outside their neighborhoods to balance numbers and create separate classes. Doherty said adding a school bus would cost $64,800 that is not in the budget and force some kindergarteners to endure long bus rides.

Even if parents drive their children to school, Doherty said state law mandates that a bus must be provided to students who live two or more miles from school.

Parent Geoffrey Corwam suggested capping the number of full-day students, so there is more classroom space.  But Doherty said a priority for most parents is full-time kindergarten.

Capping full-time kindergarten enrollment is “another lousy option,’’ Committee member Jeanne Borawski said. The best solution would be to have publicly-funded full-day kindergarten, she said.

With classrooms in short supply, Webb said the solution is for the town to fund full-day kindergarten with space (using modular classrooms) funded by a (Proposition 2 ½) debt exclusion and a (Proposition 2 1/2) override to “get it done.’’

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