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Merrimack Valley begins exploring full day kindergarten

A study on the costs and benefits of full-day kindergarten is under way in the Merrimack Valley School District, with the hope of putting the idea in front of voters next March.

The district first explored full-day kindergarten in the 2008-2009 school year, when it hired the New Hampshire School Administrators Association to study the current program and the benefits of a full-day one. The school board decided not to proceed at that time because of the poor economy. Now, as schools face the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, which recommend 1,080 rather than 540 hours of kindergarten, administrators and the school board have decided to pursue a full-day program more seriously.

“Given the expectations of the Common Core, we need more time (in school) for the kids to be successful,” said Chris Barry, assistant superintendent.

Voters in Andover, which shares Merrimack Valley’s administration, approved full-day kindergarten last March. About 35 percent of New Hampshire districts offer full-day kindergarten, including Deerfield, Pembroke, Franklin and Hillsboro-Deering. All districts have been required to offer a half-day program since 2010, but there is no mandate for full-day programs.

Administrators have spent the summer compiling information on full-day kindergarten and reviewing the old study. Barry and Superintendent Mike Martin also met with a group of Loudon parents who were interested in hearing more. The next step will be organizing a community task force, which will meet as many as four times throughout the fall and make a final recommendation to the school board. The board’s finance and curriculum committees will also weigh in. After a series of public hearings early next year, the board will vote whether to include full-day kindergarten as a warrant item for the March annual meeting.

“Voters will tell us what they want,” Martin said.

An initial estimate predicts a full-day program would cost roughly $250,000. The number of kindergarten teachers, currently at five and a half, would need to be doubled, which would cost about $303,000, and four additional classrooms would need to be furnished at a cost of $48,000. But eliminating midday busing would save about $105,300, administrators estimate. Each elementary school already has enough space to accommodate a full-day program.

Leading up to the last district meeting, a handful of voters from various towns attempted to gain support for a $1 million budget cut. That cut failed by a large margin, but the cost-cutting advocates have not changed their position.

Administrators, however, believe it’s important for the district to explore a full-day option, even with its costs.

“I think we watch our pennies very carefully, and we think this is a responsible discussion,” Martin said.

Under the half-day program, students spend about 2½ hours at school each day. The district’s 2008 study revealed that about 85 percent of that time was spent on reading and math instruction, leaving little time to focus on development of fine motor, social and other skills. Since then, the demands of kindergarten have only increased. By the 2014-2015 school year, all schools will be working under the Common Core, which sets more rigorous standards, even for kindergartners.

But Merrimack Valley administrators focused on early education programs before Common Core was on the horizon. Research has shown early intervention is key to the long-term success of at-risk children, Barry said. After the 2009 study, the district invested more of its Title 1 federal funding in an extended kindergarten program for at-risk children in Boscawen and Penacook. About 10 to 12 students from each school are in the program.

Administrators believe full-day kindergarten for all children will increase the potential for students’ long-term educational success.

“This gives us additional time, valuable time, to those young kids who need it,” Martin said. “Early interventions are supposed to be, in general, the better time to address problems than trying to intervene and provide additional supports in high schools.”

Community members who are interested in sitting on the task force should contact the administrative offices, Barry said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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