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School Committee approves mayor's plan for full-day kindergarten

May 15, 2014

WOONSOCKET – After her plan to bring back full-day kindergarten won the blessing of the School Committee Wednesday, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt is poised to ask the state-appointed Budget Commission for the OK to implement the program in the fall.
Thanks to a combination of federal and state grants, as well as changes in the reimbursement formula for state aid, officials say they could implement the program at no cost to taxpayers through 2018.
In fact, despite hiring 11 new teachers, a similar number of aides, and adding a new bus to the fleet, officials say the program would result in a surplus each of those four years, starting with a modest $34,921 the first year. The figure holds fairly steady the following year, but by 2017, the surplus balloons to a whopping $230,319, and then really explodes to $694,373 in 2018.
“We’ve understood over time that Woonsocket has been on been in a really critical crisis and we’re empathetic to that,” said Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyan. “We want to make sure that every single person in the city recognizes that we’re not going to throw out any kind of program that has a fiscal impact that’s going to hurt the community any more than it has been.”
Details of the plan were shared with members of the press during a briefing several hours before the meeting. The mayor and schools superintendent got some help from Carolyn Dias, a member of the budget commission who, until recently, served as a fiscal efficiency specialist with the Rhode Island Department of Education. Also on hand were representatives from the public relations firm Advocacy Solutions of Providence, who prepared some of the communications materials with a grant from RIDE, according to Dias.
As in earlier versions, the plan envisions using existing space in six elementary schools to make room for kindergarteners. No longer in play is a proposal to shift fifth-graders to the middle schools to open up classroom space for the newcomers.
While the program gets a onetime boost of some $840,700 in Year One from legislative and federal grants, changes in the state funding formula for education that reward communities for increasing enrollments keep it in the black through 2018. In a nutshell, enrollments increase by transitioning from half- to full-day kindergarten, and the district gets more aid as a result.
The cost of the program ranges from roughly $1.7 million to $1.9 million over the four-year projection, but it always brings in more – as much as $2.6 million by fiscal 2018.
Since the state formula keys cash input to enrollment, which is projected to average around 500 students a year, the accuracy of the cost analysis is closely tied to the accuracy of the student census. The enrollment projections were calculated by the New England School Development Council, according to Dias.
“An independent study was done by NESDEC and as a result of that, they projected the enrollment from birth to high school,” said Dias. “We need to start and anchor the proposal in accurate data. That’s why we started out with getting the right number of students.”
The financials seemed to be aimed at quelling the substantial backlash in the community from residents concerned the program is unaffordable, in addition to those who question the state’s ability to keep its promises on aid to education. But it was only part of the officials’ pitch in support of the program, which they say is also necessary to improve the quality of education in the school department.
Baldelli-Hunt made it abundantly clear that, despite the opposition to full-day kindergarten, she’s willing to spend some political capital to get behind an academic program she believes in. Though she wanted the school committee’s support before bringing the proposal to the budget commission, Baldelli-Hunt said she would still be pushing for full-day kindergarten even without its endorsement because she believes it’s sound policy, both educationally and economically.
“I did not shy away from the fact that I was supporting full-day kindergarten when I ran in the fall,” she said. “If I thought residents of Woonsocket were opposed to it I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
In addition to giving children a leg up academically, the mayor said full-day kindergarten will be good for the local economy by making parents more available for employers.
Woonsocket used to have full-day kindergarten several years ago, and now it’s the only “urban core” community without it, she said. Seventy percent of all youngsters in the state start their education in full-day kindergarten programs, she said.
Fiscally and academically, the mayor said, getting rid of full-day kindergarten in Woonsocket was “a mistake” that should have never happened. The bottom line, she said, is that the city is trying to undo a miscalculation that occurred within the Woonsocket Education Department several years ago.
Donoyan said 67 percent of the existing half-day kindergarten students are reading below their grade level, a deficit that accrues as they advance in school. In the first grade, about 8 percent of all students are held back because of reading problems.
Research shows full-day kindergarten classes can produce long-term educational gains, especially for low-income and minority students and that it can reduce the costs of playing educational catch-up later on.
“Far too many of our children are falling behind,” said Donoyan. “We know the research is out there that will support full-day kindergarten really does turn long-term educational gains in reading and math into success for our kids.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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