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March 27. 2014 8:16PM

Full-day kindergarten initiative gains support in Manchester

MANCHESTER — The school board appears to be considering initiatives to expand access to full-day kindergarten and to centralize the district's preschool program.

In the budget she unveiled this week, Superintendent Debra Livingston proposed spending $145,000 to extend full-day kindergarten to all city elementary schools. Currently, most schools already offer full-day kindergarten, but a handful only have half-day kindergarten or none at all.

Another proposal, which is at the heart of Livingston's newly released redistricting plan, would consolidate the district's pre-kindergarten program at Jewett Street School, thereby freeing up space at the other three schools where the program is offered.

Children are eligible for kindergarten if they turn 5 by Sept. 30. Pre-K eligibility begins a year earlier.

The city's pre-K program is much more limited than its kindergarten program; approximately 350 students are enrolled. The vast majority are designated special needs students. The program is mandated under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and is largely funded with federal money. A limited number of slots in program are open to low-income students and to tuition-paying nondisabled students.

Expanding preschool access, often referred to as "universal pre-K," has emerged as a priority for the Obama administration and other education advocates in recent years. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected in November, has placed universal pre-K at the top of his agenda.

Livingston said she felt universal pre-K was a worthy goal for Manchester, but the city isn't ready yet. "That would be a vision down the road," she said. "We have to make sure the planning is in place, the buildings, the classrooms. It's truly an investment."

For Livingston, the driving incentive to expand early childhood education is that its dividends far exceed its initial cost. "As I said at the board, for every dollar invested in early education, it saves seven down the road," she said.

Most members of the school board have been receptive to Livingston's push for early childhood education, including Mayor Ted Gatsas, who has often stated that his greatest goal for the school system is to ensure that all students are reading at grade level by the third grade.

Ward 3 board member Chris Stewart had an enthusiastic response at a board meeting late January, after Livingston gave a presentation on early childhood initiatives.

"That tracks with some of the data I've seen concerning the dropout rate," he said. "For every student that drops out, that costs the community they live in $250,000 in lost revenue and increased welfare and incarceration costs."

At the January presentation, Livingston referred to a 2103 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "Early Warning Confirmed." The report cited a study of a Chicago pre-K to third grade program that "produced a long-term return to society of $8.24 for every dollar invested during the first four to six years of school, including prekindergarten."

At the same time, the report noted that another study, conducted in 2010 of a program in St. Paul, Minn., found gains in reading skills from early kindergarten "narrowed over time, and prior studies suggest they may fade out by third grade."

Other school board members were willing to give Livingston the benefit of the doubt, especially because of the modest cost of what she was proposing in next year's budget — $145,000 to hire staff for district-wide, full-day kindergarten.

"I'm OK with what was presented because it stayed within the tax cap," Ward 6 board member Robyn Dunphy said. "Her budget was very well thought out."

Ward 8 board member Erika Connors said expanding full-day kindergarten was a matter of fairness. "We have people paying the same tax base but not getting the same kindergarten," she said.

Critics of expanding early-childhood education have cited its cost, and they have argued that it encroaches on the proper role and responsibility of parents.

Livingston said she agrees that both parents and the district have responsibilities, but she stressed that times have changed.

"I've found parents bring us their best and want what's best for their children. However, in these economic times, parents are at work much longer. ... They're trying to balance two or three jobs, they don't have the resources to have printed materials in the home, or something as simple as toy blocks. Things that we had as children in our homes, for so many it's just not there."

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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