Schenectady County

Full-day pre-K still elusive for many in Schenectady

First half-day kindergarten morphed into a full day. Now school officials are trying to decide wheth
Nyasia Darby stands in front of a mural at the Schenectady Day Nursery with her children: Khamari, 2, and Khamaia, 18 months. Darby said she can't leave work to drive Khamari from a half-day pre-K program to daycare.
Nyasia Darby stands in front of a mural at the Schenectady Day Nursery with her children: Khamari, 2, and Khamaia, 18 months. Darby said she can't leave work to drive Khamari from a half-day pre-K program to daycare.

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First half-day kindergarten morphed into a full day. Now school officials are trying to decide whether 4-year-olds should be in full-day programs.

With an influx of money from the state, many school districts are adding slots to their pre-K programs, but there’s not enough money for every 4-year-old.

Some districts, like Schenectady, are making their money serve more kids by offering more half-day pre-K slots.

“Obviously, I would love full-day pre-K for everyone. But it means fewer kids. More half-day means more kids,” said Schenectady Superintendent Laurence Spring.

But school officials said half-day slots are harder to fill because it’s difficult for working parents to get children to and from the program.

Other districts, such as Amsterdam, are putting most of their money into full-day programs.

In addition to finding room at four schools for full-day pre-K, the district has partnered with a preschool. The district uses part of its $1 million state grant to pay for 20 slots at Whispering Pines Preschool.

District officials particularly wanted to provide full-day programs, although they also added some half-day slots at Tecler Arts in Education Magnet School.

“We saw the [grant] as an opportunity to provide students with twice the exposure to instruction and the school environment,” said Robert Mark, director of elementary instruction and federal programs. “It makes it easier to transition into kindergarten.”

Amsterdam has 142 full-day slots. It also has 84 half-day slots, mostly through Head Start.

Using its own $1 million grant, Schenectady has 54 full-day and 72 half-day slots.

But every year, the district has openings in the half-day program. These include some at local preschools, which Spring said offered an alternative for those who can’t pick up their kids midday.

“Sometimes what happens is they’ll leave their child at that center for day care,” Spring said.

But that’s not popular with parents.

While some parents said they’d prefer the free school program over paying for private, full-day preschool, they say a half-day program is a logistical nightmare.

“I’m going to have to leave work to come and get him from school,” said Nyasia Darby, who has two children. Her son Khamari, 2, will be eligible for preschool next year.

But even if he got into the free half-day program, she wouldn’t see much savings.

“I’d still have to figure out what I’m doing with him afterward,” she said.

Besides, she’s not convinced a half-day program is effective.

“How much are they really doing?” she asked.

Her younger sister attended the Schenectady Day Nursery for preschool, staying at the school all day.

“And she loved it here,” Darby said. “And she was ready for kindergarten,”

The question of value also mattered to parent Shawn Jones, who owns a business. He could easily transport his son to day care after a half-day program, he said, but he doesn’t think it would be worth it to go to the school district’s program.

“I’d rather pay to be full-time [at a private preschool]. He gets a better experience with the full-time,” he said of his son Dominick, 2.

“It’s easier for me — it works a whole lot better. And he misses out if he doesn’t get full-time,” Jones said.

A full-day preschool also prepares his son for kindergarten, he said.

Researchers are still debating whether full-day or half-day pre-K is more effective.

Some note that with naptime, snack and lunch, not much additional instruction time is added with a full-day program.

Others say half-day programs don’t offer enough time to teach.

“A two-and-a-half hour program isn’t long enough to do anything,” said local education researcher Rosalind Kotz, who thinks full-day pre-K is especially needed for poor children who are already behind on skills such as counting and learning letters.

“The curriculum can get really structured,” she said. “It allows for focusing on the things that are really necessary.”

Amsterdam’s Mark agreed, saying he felt full-day pre-K was more effective.

Even Spring, despite adding more half-day programs, said full-day would be better. But something is better than nothing, he added.

“There are a lot of things about pre-K that makes kindergarten so much better,” he said.

It helps students learn school routines and structure, as well as literacy and other topics.

“The structure can be pretty foreign to kids. If kids don’t go to pre-K, it takes time in kindergarten for that to happen,” he said. “And frankly, we need to hit the ground running with learning to read.”

Pre-K also “orients” children to reading, teaching them that reading goes left to right and starts at the top of the page, he added.

“I think more good things happen in full-day,” he said. “Certainly an awful lot of that can happen in a half-day.”

State officials have announced that more pre-K funding will be available to high-needs districts, including both Schenectady and Amsterdam.

The state will offer grants to put 3- and 4-year-olds into pre-K, but districts must apply for the funding.

Both school districts are considering applications.

Amsterdam wants to add more full-day slots.

But Spring said he’d first ask for input from the various Schenectady groups that partner with the district on pre-K. He wants to know if they hear from parents who can’t do half-day, among other issues.

Overall, he said, his goal is to get every student into some formal program.

“We would love to have every incoming kindergartner having had a formal pre-K experience,” he said, before acknowledging that the experience is probably better in full-day programs.

“But it’s more kids,” he said of half-day. “That’s the opportunity cost we have to figure out.”

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