Ruling on Full-Day Kindergarten

Westport Public Schools will finally hold full-day kindergarten every day of the week, after 12 years, four contentious votes and over 300 signatures on a petition.

The change will take effect at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year after being approved by the Board of Education in April. However, parents and teachers alike remain heavily divided over the benefits and repercussions of the new system.

The Board struck down the proposal three times before, in 2001, 2007, and 2010. However, with the state of Connecticut mandating specific standards starting next year as part of the nationwide Common Core curriculum, Westport residents and school administrators became concerned about the short length of the kindergarten day.

Board of Education Chair Elaine Whitney, one of six board members who voted in favor of the initiative, believes that adding instructional time to kindergarten will help reduce student stress by giving teachers enough time to finish their lesson plans without having to rush.

Whitney voted against full-day kindergarten when it last came up for a vote in 2010. However, Whitney believed the Common Core’s curriculum demands could only be met if a change was made.

“There are greater expectations and increased curricular needs because of the depth of understanding we’re trying to achieve now,” Whitney said.

For Allison Keisman, a parent whose son will enter kindergarten next year, the change signals a shift in the right direction, especially in light of the new standards.

“From the student perspective, they won’t be as rushed,” she said. “Now there will be more time to fulfill the curriculum requirements.”

However, not every parent agreed with Keisman’s assessment. Educational psychologist Jill Greenberg, who has a child enrolled in the Westport Public School system, fears that extending the school day will take away too much free time from young students.

“My kid spent a lot of time playing and getting dirty and going to the library and just sorta hanging out,” Greenberg said. “These children are losing opportunities to play—and that’s something they define, not teachers or parents.”

Brooke Petrosino, a mother of three and former kindergarten teacher at King’s Highway Elementary School, also felt that students would benefit more from time to themselves than from additional regimented lessons.

“The social time that these shorter days allowed was amazing for my students and my son,” she said. “But I’m sad for our future kindergarten kids. I feel like they’re getting robbed of their childhood—getting to explore and learn things outside of the structure of school.”

Petrosino advocated continuing the current kindergarten schedule of three full days and two half days each week, which has been in place since 2010. She also suggested adding an opt-in program for parents who wanted their children to have five full school days a week.

But not every teacher agreed with Petrosino’s assessment. Jennifer Byrne, a kindergarten teacher at Saugatuck Elementary School, said that since she currently has more students who attended some form of academic preschool than she did in years past, the curricular changes make sense.

“Most of them can read, or at least know their letters and sounds. They really are ready for a bit more,” Byrne said.

However, Greenberg expressed concern that spending more time on academics at a young age would lead to high levels of student stress. As a psychologist, she’s already starting to see the negative by-products of what she describes as “the factory version of education.”

“Kids are getting highly anxious in first grade. They believe they’re stupid,” she said. “Parents are lulled into thinking it’s OK, but kids are crying, agitated. They don’t want to go to school.”

Mark Mathias, the only Board of Education member to vote against the proposal last month, agreed that additional time in school might not be necessary for kindergartners.

“Young children in kindergarten really just need time to play,” he said. “What they’re like when they graduate high school won’t be any different whether they have a half or a full day.”

However, neither Whitney nor Byrne was not concerned that the extended school day would detract from students’ creative endeavors.

“The Board understands the importance of joyful learning, choice time and time for creative thinking,” she said. “We discussed the value of unstructured play and choice, and those components are being integrated in the curriculum.”

Added Byrne, “Having a full day will let us as teachers offer the kids more time for transitions and a recess in the afternoon, which is so important for their social development.”

Similarly, Keisman was confident that the school system would act with the best interests of its students in mind.

“I trust the school administrators to determine the right amount of time for all subjects, including playtime,” she said. “I know they want to make sure it’s a balanced curriculum.”

Both Mathias and Whitney cited the Common Core as the biggest reason the proposal finally passed on its fourth vote. Mathias understood that the Common Core presented a compelling reason to vote for full-day kindergarten this time but felt confident that the district would be able to meet all the new requirements without having to extend the school day.

“The Westport Public Schools are considered high-achieving. We were already in compliance with the Common Core,” he said.

While Keisman agreed that the Common Core was a major reason the initiative finally passed, she also cited the emergence of digital and social media as a factor in its newfound success. Technology, she said, helped organize and amplify the voices of those in favor of the proposal, and it was she who started the online petition that garnered 320 signatures before the vote in April.

Yet, in spite of the controversies over extending the school day, Greenberg felt that both parents in favor of and against full-day kindergarten had the interests of their children in mind.

“All these parents want what they think is the best,” Greenberg said. “They’re trying to make the best decision based on the information they have.”