By STEPHANIE REITZ, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ If she lived in one of Connecticut’s richest or poorest communities, Kristen Bilotta-Brzozowski could be confident that her young daughter would be starting full-day kindergarten this fall.
Like residents of many middle-income communities, the Coventry mother has seen a patchwork of other towns expanding in recent years from half-day kindergarten to full days. Now, her local school board hopes to do the same this fall– but until Coventry’s budget is finalized and it’s a done deal, she isn’t getting her hopes up.
As Connecticut lawmakers consider sweeping reforms intended to close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor school districts, another gap is growing: the disparity between communities that offer full-day kindergarten and those that don’t.
All of the state’s seven poorest municipalities provide full-day kindergarten, as do many other communities with large pockets of poverty and educational challenges such as a significant number of children learning English as a second language.
On the other end of the spectrum, many of the state’s 50 richest towns have had full-day kindergarten for years and others recently added it, such as Weston, or plan to this fall, such as Glastonbury and Brookfield.
But many blue-collar Connecticut communities, onetime farming towns and small suburbs find themselves in a dilemma: Their budgets are too tight to afford full-day kindergarten without cuts elsewhere, yet they’re not quite poor enough to qualify for extra state or federal help or to draw support from private foundations.
It’s a disparity that Bilotta-Brzozowski sees as a real estate broker fielding questions from potential homebuyers, including some who’ve left her hometown of Coventry for Mansfield or other nearby towns with full-day kindergarten.
“I really have my fingers crossed for us this fall. I feel like we’ve been waiting long enough for it,” said Bilotta-Brzozowski, whose older children attended private kindergarten programs so they could have full-day classes, and whose daughter Giovanna starts kindergarten this fall at Coventry Grammar School.
As of last fall, 73 Connecticut school districts offered full-day kindergarten to all children. That’s an increase from 65 districts in 2010.
Those that don’t have full-day offerings provide half-day classes or a blended schedule, in which children some get half-day classes and others, often those with special needs, are in all day. Some other districts have a schedule that’s longer than a half day but shorter than a full day.
Lawmakers have considered bills in recent years that would require all districts to provide the option of free, full-day kindergarten, as 10 other states do, but they’ve fallen short because of cost concerns.
Connecticut is among 45 states that have adopted tougher nationwide curriculum standards known as Common Core, in which students will be expected to meet high literacy and math goals before advancing to the next grade.
Some education advocates worry children without access to full-day kindergarten will start at a disadvantage compared with peers, creating geography-based achievement gaps in a state that’s already trying to eliminate disparities between rich and poor students.
Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said some districts have been able to launch full-day kindergarten because enrollment growth has slowed and they can reassign teachers and coordinate bus schedules without much extra cost.
“There are financial considerations and sometimes space issues, but this is one thing that will help all children be prepared to learn as they move into the public schools,” Rader said of full-day kindergarten. “It will especially help those who might otherwise start off behind and possibly never catch up.”
National education experts say Connecticut’s patchwork of full-day and half-day kindergarten mirrors a similar pattern throughout the U.S.
In addition to the 10 states that require full-day kindergarten for all students, 34 states including Connecticut require at least a half-day for all children, though local districts can expand to full days. Six others have no requirements in their laws, according to a recent review by the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Defense Fund.
The disparity in the length of kindergarten days will become especially evident when students must meet those tougher Common Core standards, said Cathy Grace, the organization’s director of early childhood development policy.
“If you’re looking at some (kindergarten) children having a 2 1/2-hour day versus a 5-hour day, and given what they’re expected to master, in my estimation there’s no humanly possible way to provide everything they’re supposed to be taught,” Grace said. “That leaves some children without a level playing field before they even begin their educational journey.”
That weighs heavily on the minds of many Connecticut educators as they ponder ways to switch from half-day to full-day kindergarten.
Alan Beitman, superintendent of the regional school district that includes Harwinton and Burlington, said a slowdown in enrollment in recent years might provide the breathing room to make the change this fall, but that the costs might later become unbearable if enrollment starts climbing again.
“Once you’ve instituted it, it’s not the kind of thing you’d turn around and end,” Beitman said.
Sharon Beloin-Saavedra knows that from her experience as the school board president in New Britain, where keeping a full-day kindergarten schedule has meant letting its class sizes creep up from 20 to 26, and cutting guidance counselor spots elsewhere and some middle school electives.
“If you asked me, `Is there a sacred cow in your budget that you’d do anything to save?’ I’d say yes, and that it’s all-day kindergarten,” she said. “That being said, it’s a constant struggle to afford it and we’ve literally sacrificed whatever else we can.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)