By the end of Wednesday’s meet-the-candidates event for Schenectady school board, listeners were simply waiting to see how one candidate would manage to squeeze “early education” into his answer.
Candidate Thomas Hodgkins found a way to get his focus into nearly every answer, whether he was asked about art and music funding or diversity in teacher hiring.
He turned his portion of the event into a detailed analysis of Schenectady’s preschool education now, including the number of children in unlicensed preschools; the various studies proving that preschool can be more effective than remedial lessons later; and how much money the district could save if it spent more on preschool.
When, at last, one question directly asked the candidates about their position on early education, the audience laughed.
Hodgkins didn’t waste time.
“Sixty-eight percent of children 0-4 [years old] are in unlicensed childcare,” he said, urging for all children to be in full-day preschool with licensed teachers by age 3.
He said that could narrow the achievement gap between poor and rich and black and white.
“The only way to get there is through early education,” he said. “With our meager resources, we need to prioritize them to fund the early years.”
Other candidates took very different approaches.
School board President Cathy Lewis and Vice President Ann Reilly said the district isn’t responsible for children until they turn 4.
“We don’t have those students,” Reilly said. “They’re not ours. We are trying to work with groups in the community.”
Lewis added that the district offers 375 preschool slots for 4-year-olds — although most are not full-day.
“We all recognize the value of pre-K,” she said. “It’s our dream to keep that going, and clearly it needs more funding.”
But while Hodgkins argued that the district should invest local money into preschool for 3-year-olds, they said they should push for state aid to expand preschool for 4-year-olds.
Lewis noted that the district had added more reading specialists in the 2013-14 budget to help students once they are in school.
In response to a question about funding arts and music rather than hiring more reading teachers, Reilly said both are necessary.
“I believe we have to find a way to have quality reading instruction and maintain our arts program,” she said.
Lewis added, “We don’t like to pit one discipline against another. Children learn in different ways. We have arts and music to engage children in that way.”
Candidate Ed Kosiur took a different tack. He said the community should work with the school district to provide early education through volunteers.
He agreed that children must get help before age 4, but he said it could be done with volunteers.
“Possibly even get our high school students involved,” he said. “We have to work as a community. Every teacher is a reading teacher, as well as every parent is a reading teacher. And that’s the piece we’re missing.”
Candidate Bernice Rivera said she agreed with Hodgkins that studies have proven the value of preschool. By third grade, she said, students’ futures may already be decided.
“You can determine how many dropouts there will be by their reading level in third grade,” she said. “If we invest in a solid foundation ... students succeed in the long run.”
On the topic of school funding, Kosiur called for the district to implement the same health insurance that the county now offers, which saved $10 million. The new system uses mail-order prescriptions from Canada, at a significant savings.
Lewis, Reilly and Rivera said they could continue to lobby the state for more funding.
Hodgkins said the best way to get more state aid would be to vote in Democrats to win the majority in the Senate.
On improving student learning, Kosiur said some students aren’t learning because they’re not in school.
He said the district should attack truancy at the elementary level, possibly by busing more students who live close enough to walk to their school. He suspects that those students simply stay home on snowy, cold or rainy days.
Rivera said the district had to train its teachers to handle the behavioral and educational problems of their poor, urban students.
Reilly agreed, noting that the 2013-14 budget set aside funds for training this summer.
“We will have quite a bit of professional development,” she said.
Lewis said district officials are now studying ways to eliminate inequities among students.
“I want all children to learn and succeed,” she said.
Hodgkins, of course, emphasized the importance of preschool.
The voters will choose three candidates for the school board at the May 21 vote.