Starting next fall, Grafton elementary schools will offer program officials say will provide long-term educational, financial benefits
The Grafton School District will offer a kindergarten program for 4-year-old students for the first time next fall.
Concurring with a recommendation from district administrators, the School Board on Monday agreed to establish an in-house 4-K program, which officials said will provide long-term educational and financial benefits.
“I can tell you that in my years as a superintendent, this is the strongest recommendation I have made,” Supt. Mel Lightner told the board during a 90-minute presentation on the 4-K proposal attended by several dozen residents.
“This isn’t about the money. It’s all about our children, especially those not currently being served by this community.”
More than 90% of Wisconsin’s 424 school districts currently offer 4-K programs, including Port Washington-Saukville, Northern Ozaukee and Cedar Grove-Belgium locally. Although Grafton has explored 4-K options in the past, including in a 2009 study by the Elementary Schools Task Force, earlier proposals were tabled due to cost concerns.
The plan approved Monday calls for 4-K classrooms to be established in each of the district’s three elementary schools. Each school — Woodview, Kennedy and Grafton Elementary — will have a morning and afternoon session, with students attending for 2 hours, 45 minutes daily.
An administrative team that gave the presentation said 4-K curriculum will allow children to develop skills in language, reading, writing and math and receive self-help, social and emotional preparation needed in kindergarten and later grades.
Officials said they aren’t sure how many families will enroll children in 4-K classes, a factor that will determine the financial impact of the program. Kristin Kollath, the district’s director of business services, estimated the district will pay $307,073 in the first year to cover the cost of three full-time teachers, three aides, busing, classroom supplies and other expenses.
If the district has 100 4-K students, it would receive $76,681 in revenue from the program, Kollath said. The revenue would be $55,329 with 90 students and $33,978 with 80 students, she estimated.
However, with additional state aid due to increased enrollment, the district would receive significantly more in annual revenue starting with the second year, Kollath said. Those totals were estimated at $321,776 with 100 students, $279,073 with 90 students and $236,369 with 80 students.
By the third year, the district’s 4-K revenue after expenses would range from $212,826 for 80 students to $340,937 for 100 students, Kollath said.
Each 4-K student would count as a 0.6 full-time equivalent in enrollment figures.
“Many districts started 4-K programs because it’s a revenue enhancer,” Lightner said. “But that’s an unintended consequence. It’s not my reason.
“I think you start it because you help students.”
Lightner recommended the district use its fund balance to cover the first-year shortfall. “This is perfect for fund balance because it’s for something that will enhance the quality of education in our district,” he told the board.
Participation in the program would be voluntary, but local families unable to afford to send their children to 4-K programs at private facilities or parochial schools will now have another option, officials noted.
Michelle Garven, director of learning services, said studies have shown that preschool education can have significant impact on children’s early learning and long-term benefits. The latter, she said, include 4-K students being 80% more likely to attend college, 50% less likely to need special education and 70% less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.
Included in the presentation were statements from Grafton kindergarten teachers who support 4-K classes because they have seen significant differences between students with and without 4-K experience. Several teachers cited gaps between students in social, emotional and academic skills.
In exploring 4-K options, district officials said they considered partnering with a community child-care facility or parochial school. In Grafton, St. Paul Lutheran and St. Joseph Catholic schools have 4-K programs currently attended by about 110 students.
However, Lightner said district administrators agreed the best option is an in-house program that will introduce 4-K students to a public-school setting and give the district a chance to integrate some students in early-childhood programs into 4-K classes.
“We still get a number of students who are lacking academic, social and emotional skills,” Grafton Elementary School Principal Jeff Martyka said.
“A 4-K program really gets them ready for a 5-K program.”
Woodview Elementary School Principal Nathan Joynt said the district has adequate space to add 4-K classes to each buildings. Moving existing classes to other rooms would allow 4-K students to be near the main office or existing 5-K rooms, he said.
Under the district’s transportation policy, 4-K students are eligible for bus service. Lightner said students who attend a morning session will be transported to and from their homes or day-care sites in their attendance areas, and afternoon 4-K students will have special bus routes.
The 4-K proposal drew strong support from several residents who spoke following the presentation.
“I’m fully behind having 4-K,” said Dave Scherzer, who urged the board to keep the program adequately funded.
“Make sure to look in detail at what the teachers need at the start. Don’t wing it,” Scherzer said.
Julia McNally, president of the Grafton Education Foundation, said her group formally endorsed the district’s 4-K plan.
“It’s in line with our mission,” she told the board.
Janet Fussell, who owns preschools in Mequon and Grafton, asked the board to consider partnering with her programs rather than establishing district-based classes. Fussell said the district could save money on staff and transportation costs while still having state-certified staff and quality instruction.
Lightner said district administrators considered community-based options but prefer in-house classes.
“We think this is a more viable option, with teachers that our principals can be in touch with every day,” he said.
Board members also voiced support for the program, approving it on a 6-0 vote Monday rather than delaying a decision. Michael Holloway abstained from the vote, saying he wanted more time for residents’ input.
“I went out and got input from a lot of community residents,” board member Carrie Wall said. “I’ve seen students struggle who don’t have the 4-K experience.”
Board member Clayton Riddle said he was convinced about the value of 4-K programs, even if the long-term benefits are debatable.
“I’m in favor of it. It does help make students better in first and second grade,” Riddle said.
Lightner said finalizing 4-K busing options will be a high priority in the next few weeks, especially because the district is revising its elementary attendance areas.
The board on Monday approved a second reading of a new policy that calls for areas to be designated based on the number of students in each school, cost and time efficiency of bus routes, neighborhood cohesiveness and proximity to schools.
The district currently spends $37,000 to bus students to other schools because there isn’t room for them at Grafton Elementary School. Inefficiencies in bus routes are also requiring some students to spent more than one hour on rides to and from school, officials said.
Lightner said he wants to resolve transportation problems as soon as possible. Registration for 4-K classes is expected to begin in late January or early February, he said.