Woonsocket's all-day K may be back this fall

Woonsocket's all-day K may be back this fall

City delegates win $500,000 in state grant

WOONSOCKET - The city's full-day kindergarten program may be restarted this fall thanks to a funding grant in the 2014 state budget.

News of the all-day K cash - expected to boost achievement for the city's youngest scholars - came this week as a surprise to school board and city officials alike.

Woonsocket's kindergarten classes had been cut to half-day in 2011 over financial concerns, but some say now that eliminating full-day program did not yield local savings because it brought a corresponding cut in state and federal funding.

Once the roughly 500 students affected are reflected as full-time students, outside education dollars will theoretically support the continuation of full day kindergarten going forward, according to the plan announced this week by the city's delegation to the General Assembly.

"Restoring full-day kindergarten will bring back much of the funding that we lost as a result of the cuts," said Rep. Stephen Casey of District 50, Woonsocket.

"Next year, our state aid will be increased because our kindergartners will be counted as full-day students under the school funding formula. To restart the program it was necessary to get this help from the state to cover the first-year expenses, and we're very grateful we were able to do just that," he said.

The funds to restore the program come via a half-million-dollar Community Service Grant - a large hunk of a $2 million line item set aside by the General Assembly for special requests by municipalities.

Although information on the larger state budget was released weeks ago, the direction of CSG funds was not revealed until Tuesday. Local legislators lined up to tout the benefits of utilizing the money to restore the program, which they said they've lobbied for heavily in the General Assembly over the past year.

"All-day kindergarten is a much-needed academic boost for our city's children," said Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt of District 49 Woonsocket, also a candidate in the city's upcoming mayoral race.

"Studies have shown that full-day kindergarten does a much better job of closing the achievement gap for children than half-day programs do."

Sen. Roger Picard of District 20. representing Cumberland and Woonsocket, said, "This means a huge boost in instructional time for students, and many of our students desperately need that exposure. There are many children who are referred for additional services in 1st or 2nd grade whose struggles aren't actually related to a disability, but to being unprepared academically, socially and emotionally for school. Kindergarten is designed to give them that foundation, and doubling their time there can really help those students."

According to legislative press representative Meredith Whitty, the request for the $500,000 was among many submitted to House leadership during the year, and not all were approved. The funding for Woonsocket Schools was listed among more than 200 approved grants including $225,000 set aside for Providence Waterfire and money for non-profits such as the $12,024 awarded to the Rhode Island Blood Center.

But not all city officials celebrated the surprise news.

On the social media site Twitter, City Council President John Ward posted a clip from the movie "Oliver" where the hungry protagonist requests more gruel with the famous line "Please sir, I want some more."

He said it reflects the relationship between the city's delegation and the General Assembly.

In another tweet, Ward wrote, "Happy to take it, but it's not how government should work. Acting like beggars and whores."

Ward and others were critical of what they saw as the secrecy of the plan.

"I'm anxious to see some concrete information on this," said Mayor Leo Fontaine during an interview on radio station WNRI 1380 AM Wednesday morning. "It's been rather secretive up until this point. We just received a couple of rather cryptic emails last night."

The $500,000 will reportedly allow the city to hire the necessary staff for full-day instruction, and the district hopes to see some immediate savings from elimination of mid-day busing.

Whitty said Tuesday that is was still unclear if the change would need approval of the Woonsocket School Committee, or the state-appointed group in charge of city spending - the Budget Commission - but if the city expects to implement the grant for the upcoming school year, it will need to act fast.

"Notification of Rhode Island General Assembly grant" was added on as one item on the committee's Wednesday night agenda.

Committee President Vimala Phongsavanh said she was excited, but cautious, about the news.

"I wish I would have known about it a couple of months ago," said Phongsavanh. "It makes it difficult to make such quick decisions."

Phongsavanh said she has limited confidence that the city can depend on state aid to sustain the program in future years.

"I am going to be very careful in looking at the sustainability of the program," she said. "It's the government, so you never really know what's going to happen. I've seen many promises broken before."

Phongsavanh was one of the members who voted to cut full-day kindergarten back in 2010, a decision she said she now regrets.

"It was a short-sighted decision and I think it was lack of planning," she said. "It was done under false pretenses. We believed we were making a fiscal decision but the issue of state funding never came up in the debate."

Supt. Giovanna M. Donoyan, meanwhile, embraced the idea.

"This is about the most positive news we've had in quite a while. Our kids need this desperately," she said, noting that Woonsocket has some children who come to kindergarten still in diapers or not knowing what a crayon is. She said that both school administrators and the teachers' union have long agreed that restoration of full-day kindergarten should be a top priority for the district, but that funding has stood in the way.

Legislators pointed out that full-day kindergarten is also advantageous for local families, whose children will benefit from a stronger start to their education and whose parents will be better enabled to work without having to arrange and pay for day care for half the day for their kindergartners.

"It's very difficult to work when your child needs to get to and from school within a just few hours each morning or afternoon. Half-day kindergartners also need day care for the other half of the day if their parents are working. All-day kindergarten eases logistic and financial pressures on families, and better enables parents to work," said Baldelli Hunt.

Donoyan said she was grateful to the city's legislators for their advocacy and to the leadership of the General Assembly for finding a way to include the funding in the budget.

"Our legislators have been advocating relentlessly for this. I'm really honored and grateful that the state has listened and understood our students' needs and the impact of early education. This is a very positive turn for education in Woonsocket," she said.