SUMMIT, NJ—After a workshop and regular meeting featuring multiple hours of discussion over educational policy and cost subsidies, the Summit Board of Education has approved the continuation of the district’s tuition-supported full day kindergarten program for another year.
The program will continue at the Wilson and Jefferson Primary Centers during the 2015-16 school year, with fees paid by parents of students increasing by more than 27 percent, from $5,500 per year to $7,000 per year. Parents of those on free and reduced-fee federal school lunch programs will be charged a reduced fee. The tuition charge is aimed at subsidizing the program for those students.
Board member, and former education body president, Gloria Ron-Fornes -- who was named by board president Celia Colbert to moderate Thursday’s discussion on the program -- said the school body needed to spend its regular meeting talking about the basic academic values of the program, its impact on the whole child, impact on future learning, and parental interest and support.
She added the board had received additional research on the topic, and a number of letters of parental support for the program.
Additionally, Ron-Fornes read a letter of support from the district’s primary and elementary school principals, in which they endorsed the continuation or expansion of the kindergarten option which, in part, read, “full day kindergarten programs will never harm. However, the window closes quickly for those who would benefit from the experience.”
Although Colbert and Ron-Fornes said Thursday’s session was geared more toward a discussion of the educational impact of the program after last week’s workshop session focused on finances, some board members felt the financial implications weighed heavily on the academic value of the program.
For example, board member Debra McCann, noted the program was initially adopted last year geared toward the “break even point” financially.
In her analysis, she said, she did not spend too much time on the other items because the district’s parents “would make that decision if they were paying.”
She said she did not think the board needed to spend an hour debating the benefits of the program because the people “writing the checks” would decide that.
Ron-Fornes replied that “beyond the numbers” the school body needed to discuss whether there was academic value in the program itself.
Board member David Dietze, returning to the cost-versus-benefit discussion, said last year the school body was not “ready to invest” in the program, but was “ready to provide it”, and he wanted to know what information the board had that would cause it to reach a different conclusion this time than last time.
“I don’t think we have anything different,” Ron-Fornes replied, “except that, anecdotally we have information from the current class that there seems to be impact in these areas, but we all agreed it is too early for us to know.”
“On the flip side,” she said, there was new information from the state that showed that, while last year, when the Summit full day program was under consideration for the first time, 77 percent of the school districts in the state offered full day kindergarten, this year more than 81 percent of the districts offer full day programs.
“There is a momentum in belief that says this is the right thing for our kids,” Ron-Fornes added.
Colbert said, on the question of breaking even, “I think that breaking even will mean something different to each of us. When we use the state’s methodology for figuring out costs, we have to load in energy, for example, and those energy costs are borne whether or not there is a class going on in that building, so, in my mind, maybe, without the sophistication of a financial person, I am looking at how many more teachers do I have to hire, how many more aides do I have to hire, and can I cover those costs. If you ask me to cover the costs by the state approach then you just divide by the number of classes and the kids in a class, that’s a different number, and I am not sure I agree about trying to cover that cost.”
She added that she was afraid that, at a certain point, those in the middle would be priced out of the market.
In response to a comment by board vice president Katherine Kalin that some of the discussion was pivoting in a philosophical direction, board member James Freeman replied that it was not a philosophical question, but that, “we’ve proceeded for some time on this assumption that there’s overwhelming and compelling evidence that this is good for kids,” but the academic research is 'inconclusive'. There are a few studies that indicate that full day kindergarten is not age-appropriate. As far as the argument that it’s a win for students, I think inconclusive is the way to put it.”
He cited a 2011 study saying full-day students did not perform any better than half-day students on various assessments, and on assessments in second and third grade, and the study found little difference in full-day and half-day students in English fluency outcomes.
In a 2009 study in early education and development cited by Freeman, “there was no difference between children in full- and half-day sessions in math achievement.”
A Headstart Impact Study to which he referred, stated an advantage was lost by the time students got to the third grade.
Although he replied to Colbert that a department of health and human services study to which he referred dealt with early childhood education, he added that many of the studies indicated that what seemed like “winners in year one were often impossible to detect by third grade.”
The board president replied that board members and parents wanted to see how “this played out in Summit, with Summit kids, and how can we do that if we have only one year of study on 40 kids?”
Freeman said the burden of proof was on those who wanted to expand the program, adding that many believe that a full day of learning completely guided by a teacher is not advantageous.
Ron-Fornes replied that the Summit full day program does not consist completely of teacher-guided programs and, in fact, gives teachers the options to work more with students and gives the students greater options and more time for play.
Asked by Ron-Fornes about New Jersey-sponsored studies that could shed more light on the topic, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Julie Glazer said the state planned to spend about $40 million on studying pre-kindergarten to third-graders, and these studies were aimed at increasing assessments.
Kalin disagreed that the burden of proof had to rest on those in favor of expanding the Summit program, or that the experience of only a few years in the Summit program should be used to determine if it was of benefit.
She repeated that 155 families had applied this year for only 40 spaces in the Summit full day program, adding that the program was a help for families who did not want to transport their children to another program after a half-day session or pay for child care for students coming home from such sessions.
In addition, she said, many felt Summit’s full day kindergarten program gave their children a head start for attending full day education after kindergarten.
Depending on the number of free-or-reduced-lunch program children that would have to be subsidized, she noted, the “investment” for the district could range from $60,000 to $120,000, but the parents would “vote with their feet,” and the fee-based, full day program was a service the district should continue to provide.
Board education chairman Richard Hanley noted that first year of the program had been “a good year” in which the district had seen “a good draw” on the lottery selecting the 40 children selected for the program.
He later offered to support a program with a $7,500 fee if the maximum district investment was only $40,000 with no expansion beyond that point.
Residents who spoke about the program generally said they were in favor of it, and the district’s investment did not amount to a great deal in a $60 million budget, especially in light of the benefits parents of those in the program already had seen.
One resident said that, when she was paying $40,000 a year in taxes, she would expect Summit to provide the high quality of a full day kindergarten program.
When the final vote came, Dietze, who saw a $7,500 tuition as more fiscally realistic, and Freeman voted against the program, with the remainder of the board voting in favor.
For 2015-16, the program initially will consist of two sections of 20 students each at Wilson and Jefferson, with the administration to come before the board for another vote if it feels additional sections can be justified.
On another topic, a number of parents again urged the school body to consider reinstatement of wrestling as a team sport at Summit High School, with financial support from the school district.
They noted that it provided a sport in which students could participate during the otherwise slow winter sports season, helped build character, and whose team members often were sought by Ivy League colleges or otherwise achieved great success in college due to their involvement in the sport.
Prior to Thursday’s board meeting, board members and staff welcomed June Chang, who will take the reins as superintendent of schools on March 1, pending approval of his contract by the Union County executive schools superintendent.
Chang will replace Nathan Parker, who will retire from the district on March 1.
Board members, during the meeting, spoke of how they were impressed when they heard about Chang’s ability to bring progress and technological advances to Midland Park, where he has been director of curriculum, instruction, and professional development since 2013.
They also praised his record for inclusiveness and approachability among teachers and other staff members, students, and parents.