Hillsborough school board and teachers discuss kindergarten program for referendum

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Hillsborough Board of Education officials recently discussed the implementation of a full-day kindergarten program that’s proposed in the referendum to be put in front of Hillsborough Township voters on March 12.

The presenters discussed the changes that have occurred over the last 20 years in regards to what is expected of the district’s youngest students as well as the social and academic benefits a full-day kindergarten program would provide to incoming Hillsborough students.

Dr. Jorden Schiff’s Superintendent report included a presentation by several early education teachers and administrators during the meeting on Feb. 11.

The presentation was led by Dr. Lisa M. Antunes, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction, Dr. Mary Ann Mullady, Principal of Amsterdam Elementary School and former kindergarten teacher, and Sheila Cooper, District Supervisor of English Language Arts.

Hillsborough early education teachers Shawna Guzy, Kelly Mehring, Diana Nork, and Allison Skobo discussed what they see, not only in the kindergarten classroom, but also the results of half-day program on early success in first grade. Guzy, Mehring, Nork, and Skobo shared how Hillsborough’s current half-day program forces teachers and students to rush through a two hour and 47 minute “day.”

The teachers said that in that short time, students must get settled, have morning meeting and calendar time, participate in phonics instruction, take part in a science or social studies class, engage in guided reading or a special class, which can include music, art or a world language, have snack, attend math instruction as well as a reading or writing workshop, and prepare for dismissal.

The teachers shared concerns that some of the most important lessons of kindergarten, including social skills, problem-based learning, and inquiry and experimentation are often secondary given the short amount of time they have with students.

They also voiced concern about how the expectations of what is taught in kindergarten has grown over the last 20 years and the district’s current program’s ability to meet these rigors.

Guzy pointed out that in the 1990s, students were expected to color in the lines, hold scissors and recognize 20 sight words. Nork then compared that to today’s students who are expected to decode and blend words, write a true story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as recognize 65 sight words.

The full-day kindergarten that Hillsborough Schools is proposing does not focus strictly on increasing the academic program of a half-day program.

Skobo said Hillsborough’s full-day class would allow for increased time for physical activity, enhanced sensory development, and greater exploration of creative expression, and that students would have a greater opportunity to navigate physical, cognitive, social, emotional and language growth development activities.

If the March 12 referendum is approved by voters, full-day kindergarten would be implemented for the start of the 2019-2020 school year. The program would be held at all six elementary schools in the district.

Implementation expenses include staff, supplies, training, technology, transportation costs, and the lease of modular classrooms to be used for offices and/or specialty classrooms. This would allow for additional kindergarten classrooms to be set-up in the school buildings.

Also included in this referendum is a long-term plan for funding financial stability. Hillsborough Schools’ yearly budget is limited by a two percent tax cap. Over the last several years, officials said that the district has been forced to use a portion of its fund balance to cover costs outside of the district’s control that continue to exceed this two percent limit.

District officials also said that financial concerns were compounded this summer when the state of New Jersey announced it would reduce state aid to Hillsborough Township Public Schools by $5.34 million dollars over the next six years.

According to officials, a full-day kindergarten program will also support financial stability as the state aid formula calculates funding full day kindergarten programs at twice the amount as a half day kindergarten program.

The kindergarten presentation, as well as all previous presentations related to the upcoming referendum are available on the district’s website. Additional information on the referendum can be found on the site as well.