Funding should go to other needs over all-day kindergarten

It’s always nice, especially after hard financial times, to suddenly have some money.

That’s the situation the Sweet Home School District finds itself in, with some $1.3 million more in the kitty than we had last year.

The question is what to do with it.

As we report on page 1, the Sweet Home School District Budget Committee is wrestling with that question. Superintendent Don Schrader is interested in putting the money toward an early start on all-day kindergarten. Others, most notably Board Member Chanz Keeney, think funding lost services and offerings such as the school resource police officer, or elementary school music or PE.

We appreciate Schrader’s commitment to improving schools’ performance. He’s been stalwart in his efforts to improve technology that will actually help students learn, and in encouraging administrators and teachers to improve themselves with the goal of improving their students, and for his dedication to thinking long-term. Schrader has clearly demonstrated that he is all about solving problems, solutions he pursues with dogged dedication.

A survey of the research out there, and there’s a fair amount, shows that all-day kindergarten does appear to benefit students, first-graders at least. But it’s still a relatively new innovation that’s rea-lly only gotten started.

One of the primary incubators for this trend is Ontario, Canada, where it’s been in place since 2010. Though Ontario first-graders appear to have benefited from all-day kindergarten, this year’s third-graders are in the process of taking the first serious tests that may indicate exactly how much long-term benefit all-day K can have.

The opinions out there vary widely. Teachers unions and educational “experts,” not surprisingly, are gushing about the benefits, which include a more relaxed environment for children to learn, a narrower “achievement gap” between students from lower-income households with less parental support and those from more financially comfortable backgrounds, earlier reading and better cognitive development, better ability to work independently, etc.

This should not be surprising. Any teacher in Sweet Home will likely assure us that children whose parents are making sure homework is getting done and grades are being maintained, and otherwise staying active in the educational process, are generally going to do significantly better in school than those whose parents aren’t engaged.

This is one reason why test scores at Sweet Home Charter School tend to be higher than at “regular” public schools. Parents there are required to be engaged.

So if a youngster, whose parents appear primarily interested in free childcare and not much more, spends twice as much time in an environment where learning is encouraged, there should be some positive results.

The question, though, is how long those last. Economist Philip DeCicca of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. studied all-day kindergarten and reported that “on average, the academic returns associated with full-day kindergarten are quite low or non-existent.”

The short answer is we don’t know yet.

So that brings us back to the issue at hand: Should Sweet Home invest its extra funding in all-day kindergarten a year early, since the state is going to fund it in 2015-16.

Although all-day kindergarten appears to be beneficial, and we’re highly sympathetic to the proposal, we think Keeney has a good point and the school district’s nest egg would be better spent on students who never will benefit from all-day kindergarten.

Students who get little or no incentive at home to do well in, or even attend school, and those who generally find little joy in sitting in classrooms just might benefit from more opportunities to engage in something in addition to the stuff they get tested on.

Given the epidemic of childhood obesity today, increased physical activity would be a big plus for all of our students. Our superintendent already knows this and has taken some steps to make that happen. This money could allow more.

Research has established, almost beyond doubt, that not only physical activity, but exposure to the arts benefit students in the areas where they actually get tested – reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. These activities not only benefit children cognitively, but they can certainly make school more engaging. The arts, in particular, are practically non-existent now at the lower levels outside of the efforts of innovative and determined teachers who do it on their own.

That’s why we think the district would serve its students well by putting a little money into ways to improve this area of their lives.

We have stated in the past on this page and we’ll say again that one of the biggest casualties of the Great Recession was the loss of the district resource police officer.

Officers John Trahan and Chris Wingo made a big difference on the campuses, by the students’ own accounts.

For some, it may have been seeing law enforcement officers in a less negative connotation than they might otherwise.

For some, it was a deterrent to bad behavior. We wonder if Weddle Bridge would have to be closed during the day, as we reported in our May 21 edition, if a resource officer were visiting with the youngsters who congregate there when they should be elsewhere. We wonder if the truancy and loitering problems we see around town would be as significant.

Particularly for youngsters who have little training or support at home, a resource officer can provide one more vital element in the educational process and that’s why Sweet Home needs one.

We realize the ship has sailed on restoring the school resource officer, which would only happen if the city had been able to find grant money to help pay for it.

Without downplaying all-day kindergarten, we think the district money would be well spent in other areas, at least for this year.

We also strongly support the preservation of that 5-percent ending fund balance, spending down reserves during emergencies or as a stop gap to get through lean times. Anything left over should go toward helping current students benefit as much as possible from the education we can provide.

Funding should go to other needs over all-day kindergarten