Cranford to offer full-day kindergarten

Program will come with tuition fees, students chosen via lottery

CRANFORD, NJ — For the first time ever, the Cranford school district will be hosting full-day kindergarten classes during the 2016-17 school year, an upgrade which was made feasible by charging tuition fees of $660 a month.

Around 40 Cranford children who registered by Tuesday, Jan. 26, are being selected through a lottery to participate in two pilot kindergarten classes, which will be five-hours long.

Previously, the district has only offered half-day kindergarten at its neighborhood schools. But the Cranford Board of Education decided it needed to further help younger students on a social and academic level, said Cranford interim superintendent Marilyn Birnbaum.

“I think they felt that children needed to expand the social skills aspect of it, and improve their social and emotional skills at that age, and allow some children the opportunity do that. Because there are so many academic demands, now, that you don’t have as much time to work on some of those things” said Birnbaum. “That was a part of what this was about.”

Full-day kindergarten classes will also give students who attended full-day pre-schools more continuity, while helping integrate kids into the Common Core before they enter first grade. Of the five hours students will be spending at school, 60 minutes will be spent on projects and guided reading, while exploration and language development also feature prominently.

With educational standards on the rise, and a desire to better socialize the district’s younger kids, the Cranford Board of Education decided this was the right time to look into implementing full-day kindergarten classes, says Birnbaum, and assembled a task force to that end.

From there, it wasn’t a straightforward road: Cranford’s schools don’t have the space to hold 40 more students, or money to acquire a new building for accommodating them.

Even if there was such space, though, running two classes in 2016-17 would involve spending $800,000 in classroom salaries and benefits, as well as paying for additional services and supplies.

The Board didn’t know if they’d be able to pilot the program while staying under the 2-percent cap. So the task force split into four different groups, says Birnbaum, to figure out a solution.

“They first looked at tuition, wraparound programs, that sort of thing. One of them looked at where we would put these full-day kindergartens. One of them looked at a referendum, in case we didn’t have the space. And then one group looked at how we would implement it,” said Birnbaum. “From there, each of the committees did their homework.”

They took a long look at 18 other school districts in Union County which run full-day kindergarten programs, including Summit, which also uses a lottery system and tuition fees; Westfield, which holds half-day classes free of charge, along with full-day wraparound classes; and Scotch Plains and Fanwood, which recently allocated $4.5 million for six new classrooms.

After taking a look at their own budget, what the committees ultimately decided is that, without tuition fees, it would be impossible to host the classes, which — as the first of their kind in Cranford — will be used to gauge if there’s a need for a larger program in the future. The location of the classes is yet to be announced, as of press time.

“We decided to implement two, tuition-based pilot programs, two classes, and we’ll see how that goes,” said Birnbaum. “In order to do it in the budget — we have the 2-percent cap, in order to still come in under the cap we have to afford it. We figured out what it would cost to operate it, not to make any sort of profit, and work on it from there, try and experiment with different types of things. That’s basically how we got there.”