Janesville61.7°

Will 4K finally have its day?

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
December 9, 2007
— The tune “Angels We Have Heard on High” is playing in the background as six 4- and 5-year olds giggle, squeal and play in a classroom at Cargill Christian Preschool.

A parent has brought a large cardboard box to school, and the kids decided to make it into a castle, the teacher says.


The kids are wearing headgear to denote kings or queens. They’re having a ball.


They gather around a raised wooden box filled with rice. They hide colorful little ‘jewels” in the rice and then dig them out.


Teacher Amy Zimmerman gently asks one girl not to get the rice on the floor. Then she encourages the girl to find the jewels with her eyes closed.


The girl digs out the jewels. Zimmerman asks her to count to make sure she has them all. The girl counts:


“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.”


“Eight! Excellent!” Zimmerman praises.


A 4-year-old program doesn’t stress academics, proponents say. One major thing they take with them to 5-year-old kindergarten is familiarity with the school setting and the manners and ways of behaving with a group of children.


“Some of these kids don’t leave mom until that first day of kindergarten, and it’s really, really hard on them,” said Arolyn Adams, the Cargill preschool administrator.


Kids are taught numbers, letters, colors and shapes, but “we don’t spend humongous amounts of time doing it because they’re going to get it again in kindergarten,” Adams said.


But those who don’t know those things when they get into kindergarten take a long time to catch up, Adams believes.


Some of the kids spend all day in the Cargill facility, with day care surrounding the pre-school program. Other kids get dropped off and picked up before and after the 3-hour preschool.


That’s much like it would continue to work if the Janesville School Board approves “Preschool 4 Janesville,” or “P4J.” The difference: It would work for more children.


The district has come up with a plan to offer a “4-year-old learning experience” for any family that wants it. Parents would have four choices in the voluntary program. They could keep their 4-year-olds at home or send them to:


** A district-run program.


** A community program like Cargill with a privately employed teacher.


** A community program with a district-employed teacher.


Cargill and eight other pre-school/daycare centers have expressed interest in joining the program, district officials say.


P4J would last just 2.5 hours, and any religious teaching would take place outside of that 2.5-hour period. Classes would have 15 to 16 children, on average. Each class would have a teacher and an aide.


Proponents say a universal 4-year-old preschool experience could benefit students—and society—throughout their lives. They point to studies that indicate students who get high-quality preschool tend to do better in school than those who don’t, and those students tend to stay away from costing taxpayers money through crime or being in need of government assistance.


Opponents have a variety of objections. They question:


** Whether taxpayers can afford it.


** Whether there’s a significant group of Janesville children who would benefit.


** Whether the program would attract those families who actually need the help.


** Whether the program proposed by the district administration is the best way to address the problem.


**Whether a 4-year-old program is a step toward a 3-year-old program, something school officials say wouldn’t happen.


A key question is need.


Cargill’s Adams says she sometimes awards scholarships to the preschool program to families who already attend day care at the school, if she has the space. But she believes some local families simply can’t afford to send their children to a preschool.


School board has doubts about starting 4K program

The Janesville School Board will make a crucial decision Monday night: Should it approve universal 4-year-old kindergarten starting next fall?


The administration is trying for the second time to start a 4K program. The board tabled the idea in 2004.


The program—estimated to cost $1.45 million a year—has been revised and given a new name: Preschool 4 Janesville, or P4J.


The nine-member board is leaning toward “no.”


Bill Sodemann, DuWayne Severson and Dennis Vechinsky are longtime opponents, and they could form a majority with the “no”-leaning Todd Bailey and Kevin Murray.


Board President Debra Kolste and Lori Stottler are strongly in favor.


That leaves Tim Cullen and Amy Rashkin, who say they like the idea but have concerns.


** The competition factor


Stottler brought up a new argument at a recent board meeting. She fears that if Janesville doesn’t institute P4J, parents will start taking their children to neighboring districts.


Four of the six surrounding districts have some kind of 4K program.


Stottler said some Janesville parents have already been lured away because they like the idea of a smaller school district, and the 4K issue could accelerate that trend.


Bailey doesn’t think parents would go through the trouble of transporting their children to another district while Janesville offers a variety of preschool programs.


** The gap


A major argument for P4J is that it could narrow the education gap between the haves and the have-nots.


“The only thing I can see is that it’s supposed to close the achievement gap, and I’m not sure that’s really accomplished by 4-year-old kindergarten,” Bailey said.


“You’re still going to have a lot of people who don’t send their kids, and you’re always going to have that gap,” Bailey said.


Besides, the district already runs a 4K program with federal Title 1 money that serves about 120 of the most needy kids, Bailey pointed out. The federal Head Start program also serves disadvantaged children.


District officials believe, however, that more children are out there and are not getting the same advantage as those in tax-funded or private programs.


Stottler said it’s not just the poor who would benefit: “The bottom-middle-class folks are falling right off the scale and are barely able to call themselves middle class. The gap is widening.”


Vechinsky notes the schools already have problems with 5-year-olds not showing up for kindergarten, because attendance is voluntary, just as it would be in P4J.


Vechinsky noted that all-day kindergarten was supposed to address the achievement gap. He suggests a better step would be to push the Legislature to make 5K mandatory.


** Costs


P4J’s startup costs might be lessened by a new fund in the state budget. But only $3 million is available statewide, and the state has not yet said how it will distribute the money, said district Director of Instruction Donna Behn.


If no state grant were available, the district has a plan that would include using more than $500,000 that was originally earmarked for textbook replacements. The textbook purchases would be delayed until P4J starts paying for itself.


By the third year, officials estimate P4J would not only pay its own way, but it would generate a “surplus” of $787,000 a year.


That surplus would come from state equalization aid and from local property taxes. The new 4-year-olds would boost enrollment, which would increase the state revenue cap, which would bring more state aid and allow the board to raise taxes.


Stottler said the surplus funding is hard to ignore, and so is the potential social benefit.


“To just say no because parents should be home with their kids in this day and age is just stinkin’ thinkin’,” Stottler said. “We need to give the community what they want. The needs of the community come first.”


** Taxes


Sodemann is among those who think 4-year-olds should, for the most part, stay at home with mom and dad. But he also objects because of taxes. He points out that state aid is not free; taxpayers fund it through their sales and income taxes.


Not to mention that P4J could bring higher property taxes.


Sodemann believes the program would put an unfair burden on parents who keep their kids at home:


“People who choose not to use those services would be paying for people who want the public to take care of it.”


** The need


“I think there is definitely a need to give all children the opportunity,” Cullen said. “… I really believe in that. I’ve talked to enough kindergarten teachers to know that they can tell right away which children have had early educational opportunities and those who have not.”


However, Cullen and Rashkin are questioning whether the program as presented fits the local needs.


Cullen said a key piece of information—how many children do not have the opportunity right now—is missing.


District officials have had a hard time finding that number. Their problem: Not all families respond to surveys.


Cullen said an estimated 700 children attend 5-year-old kindergarten today, so he figures there’s a like amount of 4-year-olds out there.


“So the question to me is, before we just eat this huge thing that DPI wants to stuff down our throat, frankly, what does Janesville need?” Cullen asked. “How many kids are getting adequate opportunities today of the 700?”


The latest effort to find that number is a survey of kindergarten teachers, asking them what percentages of children lag behind when they enter 5K.


Estimated from teachers’ responses, Behn said about 250 of the district’s 689 kindergarten students were unprepared when the entered school in September.


Behn cautioned that the results are subjective, based on teachers’ perceptions.


** Purse-string problem


Vechinsky might say yes to a program that targets only the disadvantaged, but he noted that idea is a nonstarter for the state.


Behn told the board in a recent memo that any 4K program has to be offered universally if the district wants any state funding, and that includes all that state aid and the increase in local tax revenue.


Sodemann acknowledges that P4J would help some children whose home environments leave much to be desired. But he fears that P4J would spend tax dollars to entice good parents to send their children to school too soon.


“That’s their call, but I don’t want to spend money to further break up the family,” Sodemann said.


Cullen suggested the board might do well to postpone Monday’s vote. But Behn, after consulting with her preschool collaborators, said the board must decide Monday. The preschools need a commitment because they start signing up children in January, she said.


The board’s thoughts

Janesville School Board members are divided on whether to approve universal preschool/kindergarten for 4 year olds. Here are some of their thoughts.


** For it


Lori Stottler: “If kids could be home with their moms (in a) stable environment, I would love that more than anything. But I’m just not sure that’s the community we live in anymore.”


Debra Kolste: “I’ve always been in favor of it. …I think the pre-kindergarten experience already happens for everyone who can afford it.”


** More or less against it


Todd Bailey: “I’m sitting on the fence, waiting for somebody to convince me that it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t think they’ve done that, and I don’t think they ever will.”


Kevin Murray: “At that age, I believe, they need to be home as much as possible, being raised by their family, and if they want to make a choice to go to day care, that’s fine. That’s the feedback I get from people I talk to, that we’re not ready for 4-year-old kindergarten in Janesville.”


DuWayne Severson: “I’m always in favor of helping kids learn and providing opportunities to help kids learn. The model that’s presented I’m not in favor of.”


Bill Sodemann: “If the private sector is already taking care of the need, why are we making a government program out of it?”


Dennis Vechinsky: “I just think we’re doing more harm to a lot of kids than we’re doing good by pushing a lot of stuff at them. I didn’t get into this to hurt kids.”


**Undecided


Tim Cullen: “I absolutely believe in the need for it, but maybe because I’ve been in Madison awhile, I’m less intimidated by this bullying by (the Department of Public Instruction), that every community needs exactly the same program.”


Amy Rashkin: “I want this to work for us. If we are going to do it, I want Janesville to have the best 4-year-old kindergarten program in the state instead of implementing something because that’s the way the state says we have to do it.”



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