Original URL: http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2003/11/04/parents_mixed_on_back_to_school_idea/

Parents mixed on `back to school' idea
Boston Globe

By Anand Vaishnav

WINCHENDON -- Here, as in many communities across the state, the competition for the town's few full-day kindergarten seats can drive parents to desperation.

But is it so bad that parents would spend a weekend in school themselves learning how to be better parents -- as Governor Mitt Romney proposes -- so they can secure a spot for their child in the popular program?

Some parents blasted the suggestion as condescending, as if parents in poorly performing school districts like Winchendon need help, while those in better-achieving school systems do not.

"We pay taxes just like anyone else," said Mary Ellen Mansfield while picking up her child at the Marvin Preschool, a public school. "I don't think someone in the state should say we have to do it."

But parent Mandy Susman says she would eagerly sign up. Now, there are just 40 seats for about 160 5-year-olds in this north-central Massachusetts town, and parents have to take their chances through an annual lottery.

"I definitely believe I should be involved in my child's education," Susman said.

Of all the education proposals Romney floated in a speech last week, his suggestion that the state pay for full-day kindergarten in underperforming districts in exchange for parents' mandatory attendance at parental preparation courses triggered the most debate. Legal specialists questioned whether the proposal was constitutional. Principals asked how parents who worked several jobs or have children to care for could free themselves up. And parents wondered whether it would be worth their time.

"I'd go if it's mandatory, but I don't agree with it," said Tracy Morey, also a Marvin Preschool parent. "You don't need a course to send them to a public school."

Romney's offer would only be for low-achieving districts designated underperforming by the state Board of Education. Four districts are under consideration next month for the label, including Winchendon. Parents who want all-day kindergarten would have to take a weekend course that would teach them about appropriate television habits for their children, the right books to read, and what to do after school, among other things.

Teachers laud the goals, but say the governor is being unrealistic.

Sandy Christison, a kindergarten teacher at the James J. Chittick Elementary School in Mattapan, sees the problem of parental involvement firsthand: This year, parents of 11 of her 22 students came to her school's open house. Her colleague, also a kindergarten teacher, had parents of just three out of 22 kindergartners attend.

That is not a show of parental neglect, Christison said, but a reflection of the hard reality of urban public schools: Parents might work nights or weekends, might not understand what open house is because they do not speak English, or might believe culturally that they do not need to be involved.

And that is why mandating parental preparation courses in exchange for full-day kindergarten is a risky venture in a public school system that is required to enroll everybody who wants to come, said Christison.

"We can encourage parents to come to open house. We can make several phone calls. But if they can't or won't, we can't punish the child and discontinue giving report cards or say, `We're no longer going to teach you to the same degree we're teaching children whose parents are coming,' " said Christison, who has taught kindergarten for 10 years in Boston.

Romney's carrot-and-stick approach hits two key educational problems: the difficulty many schools have in getting their parents to help their children outside the schoolhouse and the shortage of full-day kindergarten in the Commonwealth. About 158 of Massachusetts' 372 school districts offer full-day kindergarten, according to state data analyzed by the Early Education for All Campaign.

The campaign is promoting a bill on Beacon Hill that would require the state to pay for half-day kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds and full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds at an estimated cost of $1 billion over 10 years.

The governor has not said how the state would pay for his kindergarten proposal.

A 15-member commission of educators, lawmakers, and civic leaders appointed by Romney will examine the kindergarten issue, as well as other education ideas he discussed last week.

Among the panel's tasks will be figuring out how the requirement of parent courses in exchange for full-day kindergarten can be made legal, since some authorities on constitutional law have said it could violate the US Constitution's equal-protection clause.

And the Republican governor's proposal might need approval by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Just nine states in the nation require full-day kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver group that tracks education policy.

Some research has shown that full-day kindergartners do better in school than those in half-day classes. In Winchendon, educators say they have noticed small advantages: Upon entering first grade, the full-day kindergartners are more used to the routines of school and better equipped to begin reading. Moreover, teachers do not need to rush through lessons, which they often do during half-day sessions that end before noon.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.