This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
WEST GOSHEN — Superintendent Jim Scanlon said voting to implement full-day kindergarten in the West Chester Area School District was the most important decision in his seven years.
After Tuesday night’s school board meeting approved the implementation to begin in 2017-18 with an 8-1 vote, Scanlon, the board and the district will now leave a lasting legacy in the community.
“This is my ninth year on the board … and even over all those times, I don’t think anything came before the board that is more important and more critical to the future of the children and this community than this right here,” said Ricky Swalm, president of the board. “This is powerful. (This) sets this community and district apart from others.”
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As has been mentioned during informational meetings with parents and community members, full-day kindergarten has been in discussion in the district for at least 20 years.
A study was done 20 years ago, but nothing moved forward, but with Scanlon now leading the district, he felt it was time to bring the discussion to the forefront once again.
Over the past year, a new study was done by a committee formed especially for full-day kindergarten, made up of parents, teachers, administrators and school board members and the final report, which promoted its implementation, was presented to the board and posted for anyone in the community to read through.
“I may be the only board member up here that benefits from this decision,” said board member Chris McCune. “My youngest of five will not be in kindergarten until after the 2017-18 year. I, having sent four kids to preschool and onto half-day kindergarten, I have always felt that our current offering had not yielded an optimal outcome for our students.”
Board members, such as Joyce Chester, who had students attend half-day kindergartens wish their children had the opportunity to go to a full-day program.
“Neither one (of my kids) had full-day kindergarten,” Chester said. “I would have given my right hand for full-day kindergarten because not only had I been a mom with kids, I had been a working mom. That’s scary when you’re going off to work and you know they’re somewhere for half a day, then you’re trying to figure out the rest of the day. You want them to still be learning.”
The committee found that the implementation of full-day kindergarten would cost the district roughly $1.75 million.
However, with district enrollment in the elementary schools expected to decline, a savings in transportation after eliminating midday busing, and the savings from children attending West Chester’s full-day kindergarten instead of a charter school’s, it’s expected the board will only have to come up with $529,000.
“The Charter School Act was designed to create competition among the schools … (and that) has led to, in my opinion, some very inferior schools and it’s costing us $9 million per year,” Scanlon said. “I think if we get them first and they experience West Chester full-day kindergarten, there is no chance they are going to choose to go to a charter school. That is about $12,000 a kid that we don’t have to spend on an inferior program.”
However, that cost still left a couple board members uneasy.
“I understand the desire for full-day kindergarten and I agree with the merits,” said school board member Christopher Tabakin. “Our responsibility as board members is to the entire district and to the best interest of the educational opportunities for children and also beholden to the taxpayers and parents. We are already over-extended for the current suggested tax increase, which is currently sitting above the Act 1 Index.”
School board member Robin Kaliner was just as leery about the cost and with the financial dilemma in the state, but listening to parents and teachers helped sway her in the end.
“I had every intention of voting against this when I came in today, but I do have the highest respect for Dr. Scanlon and his team,” she said. “My concerns have not scared him. He feels comfortable that we can do this and I know that he’s committed to making the right choices.”
Tabakin was the only board member to vote no.
Though the thought of the cost was on probably every board member’s mind, it didn’t stop the majority of them from wanting to push ahead with full-day kindergarten.
“You have to make the investment when you know it’s important and you know it’s the right route,” Chester said. “It’s then our job to make sure that the funds are there. I think the value of having our children in a place where they can learn, where they can play, where they can be fine – that is so exceptionally important.”
School board member Kate Shaw agreed with Chester’s sentiments.
“There is no other investment that pays larger dividends to our children — educational, emotional and social — than high-quality, full-day kindergarten,” she said. “We know that when kids get off on the right foot, we avoid costly and unnecessary remediation later on. There is no question about that. What we’re talking about with full-day kindergarten is not childcare. It is rich, effective education.”
The program will be implemented for the 2017-18 school year, pending the approval of the 2015-16 state budget at funding levels no less than those of the 2014-15 budget.
The move makes West Chester the sixth school district of the 12 in Chester County to have full-day kindergarten and aligns it with the roughly 76 percent of schools statewide and nationwide which also have it.
“Everyone is watching us,” Swalm said. “They’re concerned that we’re going to separate further from just the quality we currently and really accelerate (forward). We’re the trendsetters.”