Beverly kindergarteners perform

FILE PHOTO Beverly kindergarteners perform during the Hannah Elementary School Christmas concert. Photo by Mark Lorenz/Salem News Monday, December 17, 2007

BEVERLY — There was full agreement that Beverly needs free full-day kindergarten. The question now is how to get there.

The School Committee held a public hearing on the subject Wednesday night at the high school after 180 residents signed a petition requesting that the district eliminate the current $4,000 tuition and establish a free full-day kindergarten program.

Superintendent Steven Hiersche and School Committee President Paul Manzo said the district will eventually adopt a free full-day program, but must first figure out how to pay for it and where to put the classes.

“We are committed to it,” Hiersche said. “We all know it will work. It’s just a matter of making sure we do it the right way.”

Beverly is one of only 72 districts in Massachusetts that charge tuition for full-day kindergarten, according to Strategies for Children, a Boston-based organization that advocates for early education. A total of 234 districts, including North Shore communities like Salem, Peabody and Danvers, charge nothing.

State law only requires public school districts to provide free half-day kindergarten, or about 21/2 hours per day. Districts are allowed to charge a fee if they offer full-day kindergarten.

Eight-five percent of Beverly kindergartners are enrolled in full-day, less than the state average of 92 percent.

Beverly’s $4,000 tuition is also the maximum allowed by state law for communities that receive state kindergarten grants. Sunset Drive resident Katarina Reilly, who has three children who will be attending kindergarten, said the fees place a “big financial burden on working families.”

“Instead of saving for college I’m saving to send my children to full-day kindergarten,” she told the School Committee.

Hiersche said the district needs to consider several issues before converting to a free program, including the budget. The tuition now raises about $585,000 per year for the district. Beverly also receives an $87,160 state kindergarten grant, but Hiersche said the status of future grants is in doubt.

Hiersche said going to a free full-day program could also require re-districting in order to balance out school populations. Re-districting would take at least a year, and the process can be “traumatic,” he said.

“People worry about where their kids are going to be next year,” he said.

Shortell Avenue resident Sara Sallese, who helped to initiate the petition, said there is widespread support for free full-day kindergarten in the city. She said it took only one week to gather 180 signatures.

“We wanted to become the voice of the community to show you all how many people are talking about this issue,” she told the School Committee.

Several speakers talked about the benefits of full-day kindergarten for children.

“A lot of their groundwork for the future is laid in kindergarten,” Salese said. “It’s a huge building block; 10:35 in the morning (which is when half-day kindergarten ends) is not really preparing them for what they need socially and academically.”

Echo Avenue resident Rachael Abell talked about the stress on families who have to enroll in a lottery to try to secure a spot for their child in the district’s full-day program.

“I feel really badly for families who don’t have that option for their children,” she said.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

Full-day kindergarten

Source: Strategies for Children

Community Tuition % full-day students
Beverly $4,000 84.8
Boxford $3,000 100
Danvers $0 100
Hamilton-Wenham $0 100
Ipswich $0 100
Marblehead $2,600 96.7
Middleton $0 100
Peabody $0 100
Salem $0 100
Swampscott $0 100
Topsfield $3,000 50.6

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