Milford board wrestles with full-day kindergarten

MILFORD – The school board might try again to establish a full-day kindergarten program, but board members are not sure how to expand the current half-day program without setting fees too high or burdening taxpayers.

In July, the board scrapped a pilot full-day program because not enough parents signed up their children for September. To learn why only 21 children had been signed up, Schools Superintendent Robert Marquis gathered data from parents at a school open house.

The reason given by the largest number of parents who did not choose full-day, 44 percent, was that, at $501 a month, it was too costly, according to the results of a questionnaire.

At the board’s Oct. 2 meeting, board member Jenni Siegrist said school officials should try to help the community understand what a full-day program would be like and how it would benefit children and the community.

“I very, very much want to move on this,” she said.

In one questionnaire, a parent commented, “When the full-day curriculum is the same as the half-day program … why would anyone opt for it?”

Siegrist said they are not the same, she wants to show how full-day would be a superior program, because non-academic activities enrich the academics in a way that is easier for the young children.

Board Chairman Ron Carvell called the curriculum, “step 5 of what we’ve got to decide,” and said the board will likely have two choices if it wants to put full-day kindergarten on the ballot next year: Another self-funded plan or having taxpayers bear the cost for children who get free and reduced lunches.

Board members set the tuition at a point where it subsidized children from low-income families, to give them an equal chance for the expanded program. Voters at the deliberative session last winter amended the warrant article for full-day kindergarten to say it had to be offered at no cost to taxpayers.

Siegrist also is trying to get the board interested in some kind of plan to have Milford businesses involved in supporting kindergarten, but Carvell said that sounded complicated. He said that though he supports all-day kindergarten, the board’s options are limited and there needs to be pressure on the state for more funding.

Siegrist said Milford can’t afford to wait.

“New Hampshire is way behind the 8-ball,” she said, and for residents and businesses, all-day kindergarten is vital.

By state law, school districts have to offer some form of half-day kindergarten, but sending 5-year-olds to kindergarten is voluntary for families.

Nearly 80 percent of New Hampshire communities already offer full-day programs, but more are expected because the state Legislature passed a bill this year allowing keno, a bingo-like game, to be played in bars and restaurants, with revenue going to kindergarten programs.

The amount of funding will depend on how lucrative keno turns out to be.

“Overwhelming research shows that all children benefit from high-quality, full-day early childhood programs,” Siegrist said later in an email to The Cabinet. “And these benefits are shown to not only last well beyond the elementary school years, but also are the highest indicator of financial success in the future.

“I know first-hand,” she said,” that our faculty and staff would rather design a curriculum based on best practices and proven research rather than waiting for a mandate of minimum requirements from the state.”

Funding full-day kindergarten is expected to be on the agenda for the board’s Oct. 16 meeting.