Smithfield town forum highlights new school district spending

Smithfield town forum highlights new school district spending

SMITHFIELD - Town residents at a forum last week raised almost no objection to plans for school improvements in three critical areas - all-day kindergarten, expanded Advanced Placement classes, and upgraded infrastructure for technology - which in aggregate could cost at least $500,000.

About 100 people, mostly parents and local educators, turned out for the two-hour forum Oct. 2 called to receive public feedback on plans that the 28-member Citizens Advisory Group is considering for submission to the School Committee.

Supt. Robert O'Brien for the first time presented estimated costs for the improvements: $200,000 a year for all-day kindergarten, $18,000 for each AP class added, and $400,000 for infrastructure work at all six school buildings.

The all-day kindergarten cost, however, could be far less, if Smithfield turns out to be one of four districts in the state awarded competitive funds to transition from half-day to full-day kindergarten.

A state law enacted in June would provide Smithfield with $34,000 extra each year on a cumulative basis to fund the switch, with $68,000 in the second year, for instance, and so on until the maximum amount of $136,064 is reached for the fourth year and every year thereafter. This would bring the added cost down to about $64,000 annually after four years. The four state grants, however, are competitive and which districts get them is up to the commissioner, Deborah Gist, the law says.

No target date is set yet for the start of all-day kindergarten, if the School Committee approves it, but likely start-up times are fall 2014 or fall 2015, officials said. Kindergarten now meets 2.5 hours each in four classes, two morning and two afternoon, held at the four elementary schools.

Bridget Morisseau, deputy superintendent, reviewed the well known research that indicates children do better immediately as well as later in their school careers with all-day kindergarten. Children are "happier and healthier," Morisseau said. Research shows 5- and 6-year-olds are ready for a full-day program and not exhausted by it, she added.

All-day kindergarten in the long run is "cost-effective," Morisseau maintained, mentioning research that says for every dollar spent, $3 is saved in expensive mediation lessons later in a student's schooling. District schools have the space to accommodate what would be four full-day classes, she said. Extra cost includes hiring of four additional kindergarten teachers.

Not everyone is in favor. "We don't want full-day kindergarten. Our kids are too young," said Dan Snowman, father of three, who said he and his wife both are educators. "We don't want them removed from the home that early."

Snowman said he and his wife want to be the ones to oversee their children's early social and educational development, but added that he knows he is in the minority.

Another parent, a mother with three children, stood up to say all-day kindergarten is something "we've been waiting for, for a long time." Snowman suggested it be made optional, but Morisseau indicated that's not likely to happen.

Ongoing implementation nationwide of the rigorous Common Core curriculum is a key reason why "we have to look at this," she said.

Common Core demands more from kindergarten students and, Morisseau said, current kindergarten teachers are having a tough time accomplishing the added educational goals in half-day sessions.

"I am constantly struck by how much our kindergarten teachers accomplish in such a short time," she said.

Regarding Advanced Placement, Smithfield High School now offers five AP classes (in French, Spanish, U.S. government, literature and computer science), but O'Brien noted the state average is eight. Nineteen other districts offer from 20 (the most, at Classical in Providence) to a low of five; Burrillville has 11, Cumberland, 12, and Lincoln, eight.

O'Brien wants to add an AP course each year for the next few years, starting with a science class next year and emphasizing the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). Successful completion of AP exams can see a student earn college credits while in high school. "They could earn a degree in less than four years, saving a year's tuition," O'Brien said.

Projected cost includes special training of teachers; AP classes are smaller than other classes, officials said, and teaching methods are different because a collegiate approach is used. Also, a part-time teacher at about $15,000 a year could be needed to pick up classes that AP teachers could no longer handle.

O'Brien displayed recent statistics that show Smithfield students who took AP exams in 2012 and 2013 outscoring their counterparts in the state and in the world, although only a small number of local students (23 in 2012, 39 in 2013) took the tests.

Camden Marchetti, a Smithfield High student who scored a high grade of 4 out 5 in his computer sciences AP test, told the gathering a student is "virtually guaranteed" to receive full credit for a high score in the AP exam so there is "no need to take the same course in college." Expanding AP offerings would have no effect on existing honors classes or the Early Enrollment Program.

Regarding technology, Paul Barrette, the district's new technology director who came to Smithfield from the Burrillville school system in July, spoke of how youngsters today are "digital natives" because they are growing up with all sorts of new technological devices foreign to older adults. The father of 4th- and 6th-graders, he said his son now dictates his school papers to his tablet.

"Internet access is as necessary as plumbing and heating," Barrette said. The infrastructure that Barrette said needs "upgrades" comprises mostly the wires of the district's six school buildings, affecting "network cabling" and "network switching power." One factor affecting the cost is that the old cables must be removed, not simply abandoned, he said. His presentation did not include the purchase of computers.

Wi-fi for wireless Internet use is available in some town schools in limited "pockets," Barrette said, but not throughout the system. He said he intends to look for financial assistance to implement Wi-Fi more fully, particularly grants from the state and from private foundations.

Those at the public forum asked questions of school officials, but except for Snowman no other objections were raised. The Citizens Advisory Group includes parents, teachers, principals and other school administrators. The PowerPoint presentation shown at the forum is available on the school district web site, www.smithfield-ps.org .