PORTSMOUTH — Grace Zamil will be seeing a lot more of a classroom next year, but her parents say she’s ready for the challenge.
The 5-year-old now attends morning classes at Portsmouth Nursery School three days a week. After school she comes home, has a snack, watches a little TV, maybe colors and plays with her teddy bear — whatever fills a little girl’s time at home.
“She doesn’t nap,” said her dad, Jim Zamil, adding that Grace is full of boundless energy.
Now that the School Committee has approved an all-day kindergarten (ADK) program for next school year, however, Grace will be able to put more of her focus on school.
“We were saying, it’s about time,” said Mr. Zamil, adding that he and his wife, Cheryl, were excited to hear that Portsmouth finally has full-day K. “Middletown has had it for years and a lot of the schools in the state have it.”
Maintaining high standards
Currently the district offers half-day kindergarten classes at Hathaway and Melville schools, but school officials say that’s not good enough to ensure that all students get the best education possible.
“We know the rigor of Common Core (State Standards) almost requires ADK,” said Supt. Lynn Krizic, before the School Committee formally approved the plan at Tuesday night’s meeting. “To maintain our high-performing standards, we need to change.”
Committee Chairman David Croston agreed, saying the school department has been trying to get a full-day program implemented for at least eight years.
“And it’s absolutely a necessity right now,” he said, adding that expanding the kindergarten program is possible because of two main factors. “Now we have the space and we have at least enough room in the budget to do what we should have done years ago.”
Space is opening up in the two elementary schools due to declining enrollment. “It’s a reduction in head count,” Mr. Croston said, adding that total enrollment is expected to go from 2,650 to 2,400 within the next five years. “There’s been a decline of about 45 students a year. And that’s going to be a concern, long-term, for the region.”
Better for students, teachers, families
Dr. Krizic said the expanded program will involve 585 additional hours of instruction per year. According to a report prepared by the administration, the full-day program will include 90 minutes each of science and social studies, compared to only 20 minutes each in a half-day program. There would also more time allocated for literacy, math, art, music, physical education and, unlike in a half-day program, students would also have lunch, recess and exploratory time.
The current 2.75 hours per day of kindergarten now offered by the district, says the report, “is impossibly short.”
“All-day kindergarten will give space and time for social-emotional learning, increased rigor, mastery of skills, and individual and small group instruction, states the report.
Mr. Croston estimated that implementing new full-day kindergarten program will cost the district about $150,000. Here’s some of the breakdown of the numbers:
• About $167,400 in salary and benefits for 3.5 new full-time kindergarten teachers (actual net increase of 2.7 teachers), according to Supt. Lynn Krizic.
• $24,000 for instructional materials and supplies for three classrooms.
• $30,000 for equipment for three classrooms.
• $30,000 for technology for three classrooms.
• $4,500 for 140 hours of curriculum writing and professional development for seven kindergarten teachers.
The district will, however, save $147,000 by eliminating mid-day bus runs, according to committee member Emily Copeland.
In addition, said Dr. Krizic, the schools will save more money in the long run because a full-day kindergarten program will mean less needed intervention.
“If we can intervene early, we’ll save money later,” she said.
After reviewing the proposed schedule for a typical week in the life of a kindergarten student, some questioned whether the plan puts too much on the children’s plates.
Larry Fitzmorris of the group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens said he was concerned about the busy schedule, noting that many children have trouble sitting still for too long. “When my son was in kindergarten, I remember that one half day was pretty tough on him,” he said.
Mr. Croston also said the schedule seemed too rigorous, adding that he’d like to see administrators tweak the schedule to allow for more break time during the day. Terri Cortvriend, committee vice chairwoman, also questioned the longer periods of instruction.
“What does a 90-minute literacy block in kindergarten look like? It sounds intense,” she said.
Hathaway School Principal Suzanne Madden assured the committee that it didn’t involve “90 minutes of sitting, reading and writing.” Students will be broken up into groups and there will be plenty of audio/visual materials and activities during the block, she said.
Susan Hatch, president of the National Education Association-Portsmouth, said she taught full-day kindergarten for years. “They can do it,” she said.
In fact, she added, many children now attend full-day preschool programs. When they start going to a half-day kindergarten, “it’s almost like going backwards,” Ms. Hatch said.
Kindergarten students will report for their first day next year to either Hathaway or Melville school on Aug. 27. For parents wishing to register their children in the new program, the district has scheduled a “kindergarten roundup” from 3:30-7 p.m. on April 24 at Hathaway and April 25 at Melville. Notices will go out to parents this week, including those who have already registered for half-day classes.
Although she knows her daughter will greatly benefit from the new full-day K program, Ms. Zamil said her initial reaction upon hearing the news was quite different since she and her husband see so much of Grace during the school year. Mr. Zamil works out of the home, while his wife hasn’t worked as a school nurse teacher since their third-grade daughter Lilly started school.
“I have mixed feelings. I know that educationally, she’s so ready. Socially, she’s so ready,” Ms. Zamil said, noting that Grace turns 6 in October and is one of the older kids in her class.
“But for selfish reasons, when I first heard about it, I was sad,” said Ms. Zamil, noting that Grace is the youngest — and last — of the couple’s four children. “We’ll miss her not being here.”
Full-day K will help other families, however, who have at least one parent working outside the home, said Mr. Zamil said. “Think of the people who have full-time jobs,” he said. Without a full school day, “they have to arrange for babysitters five days a week. At nursery school, I notice the grandma or somebody will pick them up.”
More importantly, he said, the expanded kindergarten program will benefit his daughter academically. “It will help out immensely for the kids to get more help with things like math,” said Mr. Zamil.
Grace is already excited about taking a bus next year to Hathaway, where her big sister now goes (Lilly moves on to the middle school next year). Although it may take Grace some time to adjust to the longer school day, her parents say she’ll be fine.
“Some kids are ready for it, some aren’t,” said Mr. Zamil. “Grace was ready for it last year.”