Citywide classes for 4-year-olds?

By Lee Sensenbrenner
Reprinted by permission

Reporting success with a four-year-old kindergarten pilot program, the Madison Metropolitan School District is beginning talks to determine what a citywide initiative might look like next fall.

A committee of the Madison School Board will begin the discussion at 6 p.m. Monday at the Doyle Administration Building, 545 W. Dayton St.

The central issue appears to be whether such a program would be based solely in schools and run by district teachers or whether the service would be provided in collaboration with the city’s existing child care providers.

In either case, state law mandates that all children in the Madison school district would have access to the program, which administrators tout as a promising new way to improve student achievement.

“Providing four-year-old kindergarten may be the district’s next best tool to continue the trend of improving academic achievement for all students and continuing to close the racial achievement gap,” a report prepared by administrators said.

For the last year, the district, in cooperation with the UW Waisman Center and the Dane County Parent Council, has been running experimental four-year-old kindergarten classes at Glendale Elementary School and the Lake Point Head Start center.

Dr. Arthur Reynolds of the Waisman Center reported in his study that the first year of the program was encouraging. Children made significant gains in several areas and were better prepared to enter traditional kindergarten programs this year.

That finding was not surprising and matches studies across the country. School Board members, too, say that there is little or no controversy over the benefits of good instruction for four-year-olds.

“Early childhood preparation is extremely, extremely important,” board member Ruth Robarts said. “That’s not the issue. The question is which institutions will be best able to provide it.”

In July, an association of Madison child care providers submitted a proposal to the district to cooperatively provide four-year-old kindergarten.

Dorothy Conniff, a backer of this proposal, said that the board needs to consider it carefully, and so far it has not gotten serious attention.

But in its report, the district cautions that it has so far made no recommendations and notes: “Many of the child care and education programs in the city of Madison provide four-year-old programming.”

“Madison has a history of providing many quality preschool programs, and keeping those programs viable is important to the success of children when they reach school age,” it went on, adding that some centers have expressed “a strong interest” in providing four-year-old kindergarten at their sites.

Nonetheless, the district report details how an in-house program, based on the successes at Glendale, could be expanded to serve the city. It would cost about $4.1 million above the state revenue caps the first year – meaning a need for grants or outside funding – but could be covered in the third year by an expanded authority to tax.

Board member Carol Carstensen said that she hopes the course that the district takes will not lead them to the kinds of clashes that came when after-school programs this fall were replaced by district programs.

She said her concern is to ensure all the children who would benefit from four-year-old kindergarten get that service.

“I think that for those children who come to us in kindergarten without all those experiences that a child gets in a high-quality preschool, they are put at an instant disadvantage,” Carstensen said. “That’s what we hope to avoid.”