At McNair Elementary School, students speak 32 different languages and about 60 percent of those students live in a household where no one speaks English.
Susan Benezra, the school’s principal, said last year she had 65 of the school’s 130 kindergartners in the English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) program at rudimentary to beginning intermediate levels. She said the results had a profound impact on first-grade learning.
“I’ve had the benefit of living in Germany and there is nothing like being immersed in a language to help you learn it,” Benezra said.
So when Benezra was told there was a proposal that would allow the school to have all-day kindergarten, she was “dancing on the tables.”
“It will be a tremendous advantage,” Benezra said. “For my kindergartners to have double the amount of exposure to language … it’s a good foundation to start first grade. Children are like little sponges and soak everything up.”
Come July 24, the School Board is expected to approve the fiscal year 2003 final budget review, in it a line item identifies $2 million for additional all-day kindergarten classes at eight schools.
By a recently discovered quirk in a funding formula, the school system actually receives more state funding by creating the additional classes. Therefore, the net cost of the expansion will be about $608,020 the first year. The annual cost of maintaining the program will be cut in half because some of the funds are for one-time, start-up expenditures such as equipment and materials, and facilities.
AFTER A MONTH on the job as the new chief financial officer, Deirdra McLaughlin, discovered the school system could receive an additional $1.4 million in state funds simply by creating more all-day kindergarten classrooms. The funding, which is based on a pupil-to-teacher ratio formula, is essentially reduced by 15 percent for school systems that do not offer all-day kindergarten. Fairfax County, said Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech, was one of the few jurisdictions in the state not offering the all-day program at all its schools. McLaughlin, however, discovered that by adding just 36 full-day classrooms, the school system reduced the ratio to the needed level to qualify for the full funding.
The money to create the new all-day classes, said McLaughlin, will come from higher than anticipated revenues received in fiscal year 2003.
“Let me say, you have already earned your promotion,” said School Board member Christian Braunlich (Lee) to McLaughlin.
The eight schools selected for the proposal — Belle View in Mount Vernon; Braddock in Annandale; Bren Mar Park in the Alexandria area; Brookfield in Chantilly; Bush Hill in the Alexandria area; McNair in Herndon; Mosby Woods in Fairfax; and Saratoga in Springfield — were the next on the list scheduled to receive Project Excel. Project Excel was implemented in the fall of 1999 to provide students in "high impact" elementary schools with additional time and an enhanced academic program for learning, but the expansion was put on hold due to budget cuts. The program, which includes full-day kindergarten, is available in 20 schools.
With the approval of the proposal, the school system will have a total of 53 schools offering about 224 full-day kindergarten classes, while 83 schools continue to use the half-day classes, giving the students three hours and 15 minutes per day of school.
“We have accepted the challenges of educating an ever-increasing ESOL and socio-economically diverse population with the goal of adequately preparing each child for the first grade. In a half-day program, it is a formidable task, but we persist in our efforts,” said Joyce Taylor, an instructional aide at Saratoga Elementary School, at the School Board meeting Thursday. “As requirements have increased, the fun of kindergarten is sacrificed for the learning of kindergarten to cover all of the material in the [program of studies]. Even though we incorporate music, rhyme and games in presentation of material, there is a need to focus on brevity due to the time limitations of our half-day program.”
THE PROPOSAL will mean the return of about 11 trailers at the selected schools, said Nancy Sprague, the school system’s chief academic officer, to provide enough room for the enlarged student population. The older students, mostly likely sixth- and fifth-graders would be moved to the trailers, while the kindergarteners remain inside the school building, she said.
It will also mean the school system will have to pay close attention to the funding ratio, if it creeps above the 30 pupils to 1 teacher mark, the funding gets reduced. Without the new all-day classrooms, the projected ratio for FY ’04 was expected to be 32-to-1. The school system, said Sprague, does not allow parents to request students be “pupil placed” into a particular school solely because it offers all-day kindergarten.
Benezra, for one, thinks the additional trailers are well worth it if it means additional instructional time for the students. She also does not think maintaining the low ratio will be a problem.
“Presently I have six kindergarten classes, I suspect when my parents hear about this, I will have enough interest for seven or eight,” Benezra said.
The School Board is expected to adopt the FY ’03 final budget review, which in essence would approve the all-day kindergarten proposal, at its next meeting July 24 at Luther Jackson Middle School.