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Half-day kindergarten near end
East Aurora becomes the last school district in Erie County to move to full-day classes for kindergarteners, starting next fall

East Aurora, with its bustling Main Street, family-owned businesses and architecturally significant buildings, remains a throwback to a different time.

But the community is finally catching up to the rest of the state when it comes to kindergarten.

Starting next fall, kindergarten students will be required to attend classes for the entire school day, making East Aurora the last of Erie County's 29 school districts to mandate the practice.

"Some people say, 'What?' " Superintendent Brian Russ said. "They can't believe we still don't have it in East Aurora. There's not many of us left in the state, so I'm not surprised by the reaction."

District and community leaders had long fought the change, contending that East Aurora has a reputation as one of the most successful and academically rigorous districts in Western New York and that adding full-day kindergarten would be an unnecessary cost at a time when schools are trying to save money.

But ultimately, educators and others who studied the issue at length in East Aurora came to the same conclusion as almost every other school district in New York: A full-day program is critical to meet the increasing educational pressures on children, give them more time to learn and explore in their school day, and better prepare them for their primary years and beyond. The current 2 1/2 -hour kindergarten day simply isn't enough, according to the administration.

The jump to first grade from half-day kindergarten has become too much for many children, said Parkdale Elementary School Principal Colleen Klimchuck, whose building was renovated and enlarged two years ago and can accommodate an expanded kindergarten program.

"Twelve years ago, I was on the fence with full-day kindergarten," she said. "I've watched the expectations of kindergarten and how they've increased. Trying to do that in two hours is too hard for the children. It doesn't give teachers time to get into too much in depth."

Still, the move remains divisive. The School Board approved the change by a 4-3 vote. The lure of increased state aid for the first two years of a full-day program won over some board members, but others worry about what will happen when that extra aid runs out.

"It increases programs in the midst of cutting programs," board member Stephen Zagrobelny said. "The costs are mitigated the first two to three years, when it generates revenue. But enrollment has taken a pretty significant dive."

East Aurora has 86 kindergartners this fall, down from 114 a year ago and 135 in 2009-10. There are no projections yet for the size of next fall's kindergarten class.

Board member Mary Beth Covert, who came to favor a full-day program, said that although kindergarten enrollment is down, the money makes the move a good one.

The superintendent defended the change.

"We really believe good instruction leads to good learning," Russ said. "Our kindergarten teachers work hard but are worn down with time constraints. I think this will help our students at the early grades, and as they gain those skills at an earlier age, they can apply them in future years."

Half-day kindergarten was once commonplace in Western New York, when having one parent at home was the rule instead of the exception. But as education standards and family situations changed, the majority of school districts switched to a full-day program.

Charles Stoddart, an associate professor of education at Fredonia State College, was the Orchard Park school superintendent when that district went to full-day kindergarten in the 1990s. He said kindergarten was once viewed as a transition for a child "to be part of the social fabric of the community and the school at the same time."

But the pressure to get children learning at an an earlier age changed that. Districts wanted to have both the old kindergarten -- playing, coloring, socializing -- and the new -- numbers and letters.

"Having to accomplish all of that in a half day was just too much," Stoddart said.

This is the right move for East Aurora for the exact reason Stoddart gave, said Eric Sweet, an East Aurora School Board member and outspoken proponent of full-day kindergarten.

"It allows our kids to have the right amount of time in different subject matters in a less stressful time and will help ease the transition from a family setting to an educational institution," he said.

East Aurora had a chance to go full day once before: In a 1996 referendum, residents rejected the idea.

Since then, the district's academic reputation has not suffered.

"East Aurora doesn't have a system that is broken," said School Board Vice President Kathyann Q. Lorka. "I've always known our board to be fiscally prudent. Last year, the board talked about adding full-day kindergarten but didn't because of the fiscal deficit. We're not out of the woods. Nothing has changed."

The district stressed that it will not launch the full-day program unless it receives the expected conversion aid from the state, which would allow East Aurora to offer the program for up to three years at no cost to district taxpayers until the district must start funding it in 2014-15.

A financial analysis projected first-year conversion aid at $285,950, based on 86 kindergarten students. Factoring in $142,554 in estimated conversion expenses, the district predicts it could be left with $143,396 in estimated revenue that it can carry over into the 2013-14 school year.

The estimates also call for 1.5 additional full-time equivalent teaching positions for full-day kindergarten; the half-day program is handled through the full-time equivalent of 2.5 teachers, Klimchuck said. Five sections are now taught between morning and afternoon sessions.

In 2013-14, the $143,396 in carry-over funds and $94,600 in state foundation aid that is expected to be unfrozen would leave the district with $237,996 in revenues. After $90,680 in expenses, including salaries and fringe benefits, the district would still have $147,316.

It wouldn't be until the third year at the earliest that the district would begin shouldering the expense on its own.

Opponents of the move are worried about the cost. Zagrobelny, one of the board members who voted against the move, also worries about what it means for the future of East Aurora.

"It's a tough one," Zagrobelny said. "In my mind, we've taken one more element about how East Aurora is unique and eliminated it. The next step, it seems, is Walmart."

email: krobinson@buffnews.com