Concerned with the growing number of kindergarteners entering school behind where they need to be academically, the district is hoping to add a remedial full-day kindergarten option in the fall.
"If we want to continue with the that we’ve been able to really enjoy over the last five years at , we have to get the younger kids stronger in the academics," Superintendent Bruce Watson said at Thursday's meeting.
Fair Lawn currently has only a half-day kindergarten program, which Watson said has hurt the district for a long time.
"The students who are coming into the kindergarten, who are already behind, really do not catch up to that first grade when they enter first grade," he said. "Many of them are not on the same level as other students and we believe for some time now that they’re really starting at a little bit of a deficit. And that’s unfair for kids."
As a step to bridge the learning gap between kindergarten students, Watson said next school year he'd like to test kindergarteners from the get go so students in need of remediation are identified by the middle of October.
"Any child that's below a certain score, we are going to offer the parents to have them go for a full-day in the district," Watson said. "But it’s not a full-day kindergarten program. It’s a half-day kindergarten program with a very focused literacy, numeracy second half."
Watson said he anticipates the remediation program -- which would begin either Oct. 15 or Nov. 1 -- will better prepare children to enter first grade, get them reading at grade level by third grade and, eventually, give them an excellent chance of graduating from high school in good standing.
"It’s got to start there," Watson said of beginning remediation in kindergarten. "You get them in third, fourth grade, it’s really too late. We have to start young."
Up to this point, Watson said the district has been unable to implement such a program for lack of classroom space. However, with elementary enrollment dropping, classrooms are opening up around the district that could house kindergarten students for the second half of the school day -- although it may require busing kids to another school in the district.
Watson said he plans to offer remediation to about 40 kindergarten students each year, broken up into two sections of 20. Students who score below the cut-off won't be required to attend the remedial program, but Watson said he expects many will take advantage of the offer. The district is currently budgeting to hire one additional kindergarten teacher who would evaluate the students and eventually teach them once they're identified as in need of remediation.
"For us to sit by idle and not make a move in this direction I think would be absolutely irresponsible," Watson said. "It’s part of our job, we’ve got to do these things."
Watson said it's unclear why more students today are in need of remediation, but he believes it's at least partially due to higher academic standards and a more challenging curriculum, as well as a shift in Fair Lawn's demographics.
“I don’t believe it’s as easy as saying that it’s one ethnicity that’s coming into town. I just think it’s families coming in from all over – they’re coming from South Jersey, they’re coming from New York, they’re coming from out of the country," he said. "All of these kids are coming to us and there are those that come in and they’re just not prepared. And a half-day kindergarten program is not going to get them ready for first grade. We’re just not able to do it."
At this time, the district doesn't have the ability financially to offer full-day kindergarten for all students, which Watson doesn't see changing any time soon.
"Under a 2 percent cap, I don’t see that happening," Watson said, referring to the state's 2 percent limit on annual tax increases. "We’re going to have to wait for the cap to change or go out on a special referendum... There’s a number of things that are going to have to happen first before we do a full-time kindergarten."