SPARTA, NJ- The pros and cons of full day kindergarten have been a hot topic in Sparta for nearly two years. The Sparta Board of Education has been seriously examining the issue and considering the possibility of implementing a full day program. Currently, more than 80 percent of New Jersey school districts have full day kindergarten.
However, in December Superintendent Dennis Tobin reported the state would require over $500 thousand in bathroom renovations at Mohawk Avenue School if the district were to expand from a half day to a full day kindergarten program.
Inquiry into this bathroom issue was made with Richard Vespucci in the Office of Public Information at the New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton. The information specifically requested was clarification on the bathroom requirements for expanding the current half day program to a full day program in the same building. Vespucci took the inquiry to the Office of School Facilities.
The response cited relevant administrative code, which allows for bathrooms to be located outside the classroom providing "the chief school administrator shall certify to the executive county superintendent on forms prescribed by the Commissioner how the alternate method of compliance shall be addressed."
In response to a second inquiry, Vespucci confirmed that the 'alternate plan', in effect since Mohawk Avenue School opened as a half day kindergarten school, would be allowed to continue if there were a full day program.
Annual approval for 'non-traditional use' is a common occurrence in Sparta. Currently the district receives annual waivers for the modular classroom buildings at the elementary schools and various 'non-traditional use of space' waivers for modified classrooms. This has, in past years, included everything from dividing a classroom to using the stage and even a converted storage closet for various forms of instruction.
Sussex county Business Administrator Neal Cramer also stated the current plan could remain in place, anticipating it would have to be expanded to accommodate the use of additional classrooms. "You would have to hire more aids." He explained currently aids are employed to "conduct the students safely to and from the bathroom." He too verified this information with the Office of School Facilities. Cramer also said the plan would need to be submitted to his office each year for approval.
Two state offices have confirmed to the Alternative Press that the renovations are not necessary and that the district can continue with the existing plan, with annual approval.
But Tobin has the impression that the costly renovations are necessary. Therefore he has recommended that the only way to implement full day kindergarten is to realign the whole district.
Under this plan, Alpine school would house kindergarten, first and second grade. Helen Morgan would house third and fourth grade. Mohawk Avenue school would see the return of fifth grade. The pre-kindergarten program, serving special education and regular education students, would be moved to the high school.
Currently the alignment of elementary schools allows grade levels that are compatible, according to accepted pedagogy, to be in the same building. Traditionally, grades one, two and three are considered primary; learning how to read and building a numerical foundation of skills for fundamental math. Fourth and fifth grade students, considered intermediate, make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Resources and staff, including curriculum, special services, instrumental instruction, and others are aligned in the same way. Splitting the grades into a different configuration will revert to the previous need of having staff travel between buildings to provide for the students. That cost has not been included in the discussion.
At a recent PTO Executive Council meeting Tobin did state "all of the district administrators feel that the current alignment is the best plan educationally."
Many parents in the district are upset at the prospect of realigning the schools again. Board President Karen Scott even admitted at the December board meeting that she was not sure if she would support a full day program if it required the realignment proposed by Tobin.
Sparta parents, however, have voiced their support for a full day kindergarten program. Since the board first began discussing adding the program, parents have spoken at meetings urging the board to support a full day program. Recently, several parents of special needs children have spoken passionately about the need to support Sparta's youngest students with a full day program to allow for more in depth instruction. Both special needs and general education parents have agreed that full day kindergarten would benefit children in light of the new rigors of the mandated common core standards.
"While the standards are being met," states Dr Melissa Varley, Director of Curriculum, "we could offer more opportunity for our students in a full day program. Students who have full day kindergarten will have an advantage over our students who only get two hours" [of instructional time].
Asked to comment on The Alternative Press discussions with state officials Tobin responded. “Questions have risen whether we can potentially house full day kindergarten at the Mohawk Avenue School using the current approved alternative plan. Last school year I facilitated site visits with representatives from the NJDOE on both the county and state levels on September 6, 2012 and January 3, 2013 to discuss and review full day kindergarten at the Mohawk Avenue School. Following those site visits it was determined that the Mohawk Avenue School would not be a feasible facility to house full day kindergarten due to the bathroom requirements for that grade level. I am currently following up with the NJDOE regarding full day kindergarten at the Mohawk Avenue School. If it is an option, I will ask the NJDOE to put it in writing to my office all the particulars to share with our BOE and school community. If indeed the NJDOE approves an alternate plan for full day kindergarten at the Mohawk Avenue school I will have to carefully review all the requirements. However, my initial research indicates that it would not be a sound long term educational decision to house full day kindergarten at the Mohawk Avenue School. The long term plan of having to annually employ approximately 12 non-instructional classroom aides to escort students to the bathroom is a concern to my office. The children will be missing instructional time and it will cost the district over $150,000. annually for these non-instructional employees. If we are required to offer health benefits to these employees the cost could double. I hope to provide our BOE all the necessary information to make a decision regarding full day kindergarten by February or March.”
At the December board meeting Tobin outlined the anticipated costs of implementing the full day program. He said there would be an additional transportation cost of $117 thousand annually if the schools were re-aligned. There has not been any discussion as to the cost, in both time and money, of having district staff travel between school buildings, as could be anticipated if the grade alignment is changed.
As to Tobin's concern about loss of instructional time under the current bathroom plan, students now are brought to the bathroom before snack to not only use the facilities but to wash their hands prior to eating. Teachers say the whole process takes much less than 10 minutes.
There has not been much detailed discussion of the pre-kindergarten component of Tobin's realignment plan. In that plan the 3 and 4-year-olds would go to the high school. No district official will state the specific room at the high school identified for the program, where the bathroom facilities will be or specifics of how 3 and 4-year-olds will use the same gymnasium as high school students, where a playground will be located or any of the costs involved.
Sparta is one of only five districts in Sussex County still operating a half day program. Tobin said he knows that there is at least one of the five that has committed to full day kindergarten for next year.
With a price tag of approximately $1 million, financing the full day program is a major consideration. The district has $1.2 million in 'banked cap' funds currently available. These funds have accrued as a result of two years of not expanding the budget by the full two percent allowable by law. If the banked cap is not used this year, it will expire and never again be available. If the banked cap is used, it becomes part of the base budget of funding, available every year going forward.
Last month Governor Christie vetoed a bill to form a committee to investigate mandating full day kindergarten. Christie's stated rationale was that such a committee would be redundant to the efforts already studying the issue both within and outside of the state Department of Education.
For additional information and cost breakdown read http://thealternativepress.com/articles/district-plans-school-realignment-to-avoid-bathro