Schools Superintendent Bill Gretzula has been making it clear of late that he is shooting for the continuation of the district's full-day kindergarten pilot program, if not its expansion.
This week, he put on the full-court press for a decision he said will be made by the school board next month.
Gretzula gave a 30-minute presentation at Wednesday's board meeting that included a slew of numbers that point to the decision being a slam dunk despite its cost which will have to be borne by the district now that state funding is being eliminated.
He converted one school board member and may not even have had to.
The program was titled “The Most Successful Intervention Model in Bensalem.”
“If we don't offer full-day kindergarten, we're going to be paying for additional intervention (services) some time down the road for the children who don't benefit from the increased time in full-day kindergarten,” Gretzula said.
The numbers showed that in most cases district students who have been able to take part in the lottery-enrollment full-day program have exited kindergarten with double the grade and progress as those still in half-day classes.
In addition, he said and videotaped teachers and parents testified, the full-day program helps students with their social development as they have time for recess and lunch. The district also is able to gather more data to identify students' special needs when they attend full-day classes, Gretzula said.
The superintendent repeated that the district should not perpetuate the gap between those children in the program and those who don't win the lottery. While 120 students got lucky this school year, 260 continue to attend half-day classes.
“We've been asking can we afford full-day kindergarten,” Gretzula said. “What we should be asking is can we afford not to offer full-day kindergarten.”
The superintendent stressed that the the program does not cost $1 million, as he said some are claiming. Rather, he said, the pilot program which consists of six classes, costs $240,000, the price of the three extra teachers needed for it.
That amount of money has been included in the general fund of the district's proposed final budget, which was approved Wednesday night. Up until now, the program, which began in 2007-2008, has been financed with state funds. But the proposed state budget has eliminated that block grant money.
Gretzula said 89 percent of kindergarten registrants last week, 276 of 311, said they want their children in full-day classes.
While the district probably does not have space for universal full-day kindergarten, he said, it could provide those classes for “every family who thinks their children are ready.” (He previously told Patch the district needs to develop criteria for youngsters' readiness but he did not mention that Wednesday.)
Doubling the number of classes to 12, with 25 students in each class, would grant Gretzula's ultimate wish at double the current cost, $480,000, he said.
Furthermore, he stressed, the district will spend $640,000 this year for the 64 township children whose parents chose to enroll their children in the full-day program at School Lane Charter School. That figure has climbed, he explained, because the state is eliminating a 30-percent charter school tuition subsidy.
“This is not a criticism of what they (School Lane Charter) offer but I would suggest to you that what we offer in terms full-day kindergarten is as good or better,” he said.
For $480,000, he said, the district could “hopefully” get many of those students back and save money.
“We want to be the number-one option for parents in Bensalem,” he added.
The school board voted last year to continue the program for this and next school year, provided that the state block grant funding was still available. As the subject of local funding has been discussed over the last several weeks, the only public comments from board members had been supportive.
Wayne Lewis may have been biting his tongue but no longer Wednesday night.
“That was a great presentation,” he told Gretzula. “You changed my mind.”
Before the presentation, the public's support for the program and its expansion continued Wednesday.
One mother told the board her special-needs son has benefited greatly.
“Without full-day kindergarten, I don't know where he'd be,” she said. “I am begging you guys for full-day kindergarten for all of our kids.”