Published DateCENTER HARBOR — The consensus seems clear that, for some students, attending pre-school and full-day kindergarten can put them in a position to succeed when they begin first grade. If that's true, should Inter-Lakes School District consider offering those services to all young children in the district?
The topic was discussed on Tuesday night at a "round table" discussion hosted by the Inter-Lakes School Board. Instead of being held in the Humiston Building in Meredith — the board's usual meeting location — the meeting was held in the Center Harbor Town Hall, in keeping with the board's new plan to hold its second meeting of the month in locations more convenient for constituents who do not live in Meredith. The board is expected to soon hold such a meeting in Sandwich.
Prior to the regular business of the board meeting, an hour was allocated to facilitate a discussion among those present.
Mark Billings, a Meredith resident, asked those present to respond to a recent report about the Head Start program, a federal initiative which seeks to prepare low-income children for kindergarten. A recent report suggested that taxpayers weren't getting a return on their investment.
Inter-Lakes, he was told, offers a pre-school program for students who are identified as having yet to achieve basic skills they'll need to start kindergarten. As a "reverse mainstream" program, the pre-school also includes an equal number of students, selected through a lottery system, who are on-track for kindergarten success. Come kindergarten, most students have access to only a half-day program, while students who are still behind can attend a full-day kindergarten class.
Students who enter first grade with a skills deficit run the risk of remaining behind their peers for years. However, if a student can be brought up to speed early in her educational career, research strongly suggests, she is less likely to require extensive special education services year after year.
"The sooner you deal with these skills gaps, the less time you will spend late on in compensatory teaching... kids are natural learners," said board member Howard Cunningham.
Karen Sticht, a resident of Meredith, suggested that such early-intervention programs could also benefit students who are academically proficient but have yet to learn the social and behavioral rules of school. Dana Chase, a parent who works in the Laconia School District, said she had seen first-hand the results of full-day kindergarten while at work and asked the board why such a program wasn't a priority in Inter-Lakes.
The interest in such services has become heightened due to changes in society. While most of the adults in the meeting room had been raised in a household where one parent was able to stay home, they recognized that very few of the district's present students were so fortunate. "It's a different setting than it was in the 1960s," said board member Lisa Merrill.
While no board members argued against expanding access to full-day kindergarten, finding the resources to fund the program's expansion might not be such an easy sell. The discussion occurred during the board's yearly budgeting process, and as in most years, the board was juggling the triple concerns of protecting quality of education, absorbing increasing costs passed down from state cuts, and avoiding onerous pressure on taxpayers.
"We do get worried about funding," said board member John Martin. "But the programs and kids drive what we put into the budget," he said, adding that the district's member communities might reach into their pocketbooks if the board and administrators make the case that it's necessary. "Our communities have been outstanding about supporting the educational needs of our kids."
Mary Ellen Ormond said, "What we want to do is provide the services that we can, but we need to be mindful of what the communities can support."
"The all-day kindergarten program is one we're struggling with right now," Ormond added.
Richard Hanson, board chair, said, "The evidence is out there, there is no doubt that money invested into early education repays itself."
Other topics touched on during the discussion included extending the school year and establishing a mentoring program. At future round table discussions, the board planned to discuss school safety.
The Inter-Lakes School Board will hold a public hearing on its proposed 2013-2014 budget at 6:30 p.m. on Feburary 6 in the Inter-Lakes Community Auditorium. The next regular board meeting will be held on Feburary 12.