After the state decided to restore the appropriation for higher education in New Hampshire, an educational dilemma involving much younger students remains unsolved. Attending kindergarten is still optional in N.H. and the law only requires schools to offer half-day kindergarten programs.
“In a half-day kindergarten program there are several problems. There is less continuity, less time for the child to practice. Educational differences between half-day and full-day programs are profound,” said Keene State College Early Childhood Education Professor and former kindergarten teacher Dottie Bauer.
Before 2010, offering kindergarten was optional for the school districts. N.H. was the last state in the country to require schools to provide kindergarten.
In 2009, before the law came into effect, 59 school districts in New Hampshire offered full-day kindergarten programs. In 2010, the number raised to 60 school districts. During the 2011-2012 school year, 66 school districts in the state offered full-day kindergarten programs, according to the N.H. Department of Education. More recent information is not yet available.
Some of the school districts that offered full-day programs even before the legislature made kindergarten mandatory are located in high-income areas of the state like Londonderry, Dover and Keene, Bauer said.
Public Information Coordinator for the Keene School District, Christine Weeks, said the five elementary schools in the district offer a full-day kindergarten program and that by October 2012, there were 205 children enrolled in kindergarten in Keene.
“We offered kindergarten many years before it became mandatory in New Hampshire. About fifteen years ago we switched from a half-day program to a full-day program,” Weeks said.
However, this is not the case of most school districts in N.H. Before 2010, 10 districts in the south-central area of N.H., including Salem, Milford and Hudson did not offer kindergarten at all.
According to the Child Welfare League of America’s website, this meant that 13 percent of the children in N.H. did not have access to kindergarten.
According to Bauer, kindergarten is a crucial period for learning social skills as well as basic academic skills that have major impact in future learning processes. “In kindergarten, we intend to make children curious about reading, about the natural world and the social world around them. I think children that haven’t had a full-day of kindergarten or worse, if they didn’t attend at all, are behind.”
Statistics by the N.H. Department of Education indicate that 35 percent of the school districts in the state offer full-day kindergarten programs and 55 percent offer half-day kindergarten programs.
However, the statistics may be too optimistic, considering that in order to be counted as a school district that offers full-day programs, the district has to offer that program in at least one school.
For example, the school district in Concord has eight schools and only one offers full-day kindergarten.
Claremont offers full-day programs only to ‘at-risk children.’ Croydon offers full-day kindergarten three days a week and Surry charges parents tuition if they want their children to attend full-day rather than half-day. All these districts are included in the 35 percent that offer full-day kindergarten.
According to Patty Ewen, Chief of Early Childhood Education in the N.H Department of Education, kindergarten attendance rates are high. She indicated that 94 to 95 percent of N.H. five-year-olds attend kindergarten, and that 10 percent of them attend a private kindergarten or out-of-state kindergarten.
However, she said the agency doesn’t have statistics of how many five-year- olds attend full day kindergarten, how many attend half-day and how many don’t attend kindergarten at all.
Indeed, because the state doesn’t fund full-day kindergarten in every elementary school, parents have to go out of their way to guarantee their children receive a high quality early childhood education.
Kirsti Sandy, a Keene State College English professor and mother of three-year-old Betty, said her family moved to Chesterfield, where there is an elementary school with full-day kindergarten so their daughter can attend when she turns five.
“A full-day kindergarten is something we really want for her. Not sending her to kindergarten is not even an option for me,” Sandy said.
Professor Bauer explained that full-day kindergarten programs not only benefit children, but also benefit parents and teachers.
From the teacher’s perspective, Bauer stated that if schools offer half-day programs, they will most likely have a morning session and an afternoon session.
“That doubles the amount of families. As a teacher, you can’t build a close relationship with fifty families. If you have a smaller number of families, you can really get to know them.”
Sandy went on to say, “I believe that all schools should have full-day programs. I know it might be hard because of economic reasons, but we should really see this as a priority.”
Regarding funding, Bauer stated the current issue of funding full-day programs is closely related to past school practices. “Because we didn’t require even school districts to offer kindergarten for so long, many places are resisting putting extra money in it, there has been a big controversy for a very long time,” said Bauer.
Ewen indicated that the state provides funding for half-day kindergarten program, which is $1,725 per student enrolled in kindergarten. Elementary schools that offer full-day programs (which annually cost $3,450 per student) complete their budget with other revenues like local tax dollars, Title I Funds (awarded by the Federal government for disadvantaged children and children of poverty) and tuition.
In the Keene School District, 50.1 percent of the budget comes from property taxes, eight percent comes from tuition parents (not from Keene) pay, 16 percent comes from state aid and 4.2 percent comes from federal aid.
For Ewen, it is difficult to say why the state of N.H. only funds half-day programs. “Because that’s what legislators think the people want. It all comes down to which legislators the people of N.H. choose to represent them. These legislators make the decision whether to fund education programs or not.” For Bauer, Keene is a community that embraces education. “That was one of the reasons why Keene State was placed in this town instead of some other larger cities in the state back in 1909.”
The student-teaching program by KSC has had a significant impact in early childhood education in the area, according to Ewen.
The program requires all education students to teach in schools for at least three semesters. According to Kathleen Hurst, Clinical Field experience coordinator of teacher education at KSC, in academic year 2012-2013, 60 students worked in different elementary schools in the area including towns like Surry, Jaffrey, Troy and Keene.
Bauer said her students participating in the program have noted economical differences between the schools they teach at. “Some of them go to wealthier areas and some assist in areas with fewer resources. We sit in class and we discuss all these issues.”
KSC graduate Rebecca Roberts was a student teacher at Winchester Elementary School during spring 2013.
“Winchester is a very low socio-economic area, but even so, the school is provided with as many resources as possible. I didn’t experience any problems though. I think that the key thing is that the community of Winchester is heavily involved in the success of the school,” Roberts said.
Even though community involvement initiatives seems to be a crucial factor regarding the improvement of education practices, sometimes it is not enough.
Indicators show the state of N.H. is in a fairly good shape economically; according to the U.S. New Hampshire Employment Security Agency, state unemployment rate is far below national and income per capita is above national averages. However, the economic indicators are not reflected in public kindergarten.
Ewen said there are new early learning initiatives by the Obama administration that allow children to access more resources and spend more time in a learning environment.
However she stated, “In the end it depends on the state. It would be very nice if New Hampshire would be interested in implementing more complete programs, but I can’t say it is going to happen in the near future.”
Karina Barriga Albring can be contacted at email@example.com