Early Education Still a Priority Despite State Aid Cuts

Feb. 4, 2020-- Full day kindergarten in Toms River Schools is one program the district is determined not to backtrack on, despite millions of dollars in state aid reductions, a scenario the district has taken a leadership role in fighting.

Back in 2013, as the Board of Education searched for a new superintendent, one of its top priorities was finding a leader who could implement a comprehensive full-day kindergarten program in its 12 elementary schools. At the time, the district was among only 19 percent statewide that didn’t offer full day K. Prior attempts, contingent on TR taxpayers approving millions in referendum dollars, had failed.

The need for quality early age programs has become increasingly evident as families eligible for the free and reduced lunch program has steadily soared, jumping from around 20 percent pre-Sandy to 29.3 percent in 2019, with 10 schools currently qualifying for Title I targeted assistance. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are at increased risk of falling behind their peers without early interventions.

After a year of preparation that included resource reallocations, curriculum writing, room reconfigurations, staff training, furniture and materials purchases, new Superintendent David Healy and his team made the vision a reality at no cost to taxpayers.

“This initiative represents more than just a longer school day,” said Elementary Assistant Superintendent Debra McKenna. “It represents a wholesale change in curriculum, using research-based practices that focus on social interaction, positive decision making, individualized learning, and center based activities to foster independence.”

Dr. Vincent Costanza, director of the NJDOE’s Office of Primary Education, visited the district on several occasions during its initial phase, and praised the district’s implementation as a model program at the June 2016 Board of Education meeting.

“This investment in our youngest students is transformative for a school district and honors advances at our intermediate and high schools.” - Superintendent David Healy 

Five years later, the first cohort of students to experience full day K is in fourth grade. While it is early to assess the full breadth of its academic impact, one clear outcome has been a significant drop in retention-- from 2015-2016 to 2018-2019, a 69 percent decline among first graders.

“The research is clear that students who are retained face significant challenges moving forward,” said Director of K-5 Curriculum Cara DiMeo. “They are more likely to drop out and face increased social-emotional hurdles through the change in peer relationships. And from a district standpoint, there is a financial impact.”

The number of students receiving basic skills services has also dropped, from 22 percent to 18 percent. This is consistent with research-based evidence that students accustomed to a full day of learning have better stamina coming into first grade, as well as a more solid foundation of literacy skills and greater conceptual understanding of mathematics. These core skills transfer into other content areas and promote higher levels of success throughout their academic career. The more robust program also allows for earlier identification of and interventions for students with learning disabilities.

Changes in high stakes state tests over the past few years have made it difficult to accurately quantify the academic impact of full-day kindergarten. However, because a research-supported, problem-based, social-emotional approach is now used from P to 12, program continuity has helped reduce chronic absenteeism and dropout rates, increased PSAT and SAT achievement, and advanced career opportunities.

“This investment in our youngest students is transformative for a school district and honors advances at our intermediate and high schools,” according to Superintendent Healy. “Our initiatives continue to be recognized across the state, from literacy to computer science to makerspaces.”

Though the Department of Education does not mandate that districts offer full day kindergarten, it recommends it, and research supports its impact. Ironically, the state directed tens of millions in funding towards pre-school expansion when 20 percent of NJ schools don’t have full-day kindergarten. Add to that state aid cuts from Senate Bill S2 and the recent veto of a bill that would have provided cap relief to districts like Toms River Regional Schools, and educators are left bewildered.

“If we’re being stripped of the funding that otherwise would allow us to host our kindergarten program, and then denied any recourse to recoup that funding, what are we supposed to do?” asked Healy. “And while I fully support strong pre-schools, if it’s at the expense of kindergarten I have to ask, where are these pre-schoolers supposed to go at the culmination of pre-school?”

Though the full-day program remains in place, state aid cuts continue to threaten its continuation beyond 2020-2021. Parents are strongly encouraged to register early to maximize the chances of their children being placed in their home school. Registration will take place in the twelve elementary schools in March 2020.

Further information can be found at www.trschools.com/registration/kindergarten.

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