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WESTTOWN — As West Chester Area School District Superintendent Jim Scanlon sees it, this is the biggest decision facing the district in the seven years he has been there.
On March 29, the school board will decide if the district will move from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten starting in 2017-18.
“It’s something that has been talked about probably 20 years ago and every year it comes up a little bit,” Scanlon said. “We went through a process this year, a full cost-benefit analysis of having full-day kindergarten.”
On Tuesday night, Scanlon held the second of two informational meetings about full-day kindergarten at Stetson Middle School, which was open to anyone interested.
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All the research of implementing a full-day kindergarten was recently done by a committee specifically tasked for this, consisting of teachers, administrators, parents and school board members.
“I’ve been a proponent of full-day kindergarten for many years, especially in today’s world where we have so many demands on our kids,” Scanlon said.
If the board adopts full-day kindergarten, the idea is to not add more work to the students, Scanlon said. Instead, it will give the teachers more time for hands-on learning and more playful activities to help instill the teachings over a longer period of time.
“Research shows us that children learn best when they are able to incorporate play into their learning,” said the summary report from the committee. “A full-day program allows us to do that. We are looking forward to offering a more dynamic and enriching program. Full-day kindergarten will include work on gross motor skills, social skills, art, music, library, physical education and recess.”
Over seven months, the committee analyzed the impact four key factors into having full-day kindergarten: is there enough space, what the curriculum would look like, the impact on the community and the cost to the district.
The committee found that statewide, 77 percent of districts offer full-day kindergarten and in Chester County, five districts have it.
Looking at a couple local districts, the committee found that in Radnor, more full-day kindergarten students are reading and writing at or above grade level than they were in previous years. In Neshaminy, the full-day students outscored half-day students on every assessment in reading, writing and math.
Currently, the district has a half-day program. Some parents who want their child to go for a full day will look elsewhere, such as private or charter schools.
“We currently have 104 students attending charter school kindergarten and that’s costing us about $1.3 million a year,” Scanlon said.
As Scanlon pointed out, many of the 104 students will return to the district when they begin first grade.
“We get about a 24-percent increase in enrollment in first grade every year,” he said.
The committee found that there is building space, due in large part to the decline in enrollment expected over the next four years because the birth rate is decreasing and the district is primarily “built out,” meaning there are few new developments being constructed.
What is probably the most concerning to district residents will be the price of implementing full-day kindergarten.
The committee came out with an approximate cost of $1.75 million, but majority of the funding will come from currently budgeted items, money saved from children projected to not attend charter school now with the option and transportation savings with the elimination of midday busing.
After all of that, the district would be left with a remainder of $529,000.
“We believe we can reallocate funds from other parts of our existing operational budget to cover those costs,” the report said.
Scanlon said if the district can consistently find ways to budget for things such as state mandates, then it should be able to fund full-day kindergarten as well.
“We actually allocated $600,000 for charter schools this year,” he said. “We actually allocated an additional $3.5 million for special education costs. Here we are with an opportunity to have an impact on about 700 young people coming in for the first time. If we can’t find that $500,000 within a $235 million budget, I think we have a problem.”
The school board will vote to either implement or reject full-day kindergarten at its next meeting on March 29 at 7:30 p.m.