By JOHN GORALSKI
Ian Cerra probably had no idea what he was getting into when he was named as classroom greeter on Friday, May 8, but just after lunch he found himself toe-to-toe with Governor Dannel Malloy at the front door of his classroom as state officials, school administrators, bodyguards, and press swarmed into the classroom.
Malloy and his newly sworn-in Commissioner of Education Dianna R. Wentzell were on a tour of Connecticut elementary schools to promote a push toward full-day kindergarten in the state, and Hatton Elementary School was an obvious stop on the tour.
The Southington school system rolled out a full-day program in 2013 after two years of planning. Now, Malloy was surveying the early results. So Cerra escorted the governor to a group of his classmates, and Malloy asked about the day’s lessons, discussed a family of ducks that live just outside the window of the classroom, and answered questions from the students as if he was in the press room at the Capitol.
Southington Super-intendant of Schools Tim Connellan said he was proud that the local school was added to the governor’s schedule.
“We are very proud of what we do here in Southington. We have teachers that literally knock themselves out every single day for their students,” Connellan said. “We have the type of community that supports what we do, and we have a good, supportive board with people that really, really care about students.”
Malloy seemed to agree, saying that he added Hatton to the itinerary because he wanted to see a school that had recently implemented a full-day kindergarten program.
“We’ve had schools systems in Connecticut that have had full-day kindergarten for 50 years. Then, we have some folks who have more recently come to it, and we have 14 districts that still don’t have full day kindergarten for some or all of their students,” Malloy said, noting that there are about 36,000 students in Connecticut that currently have a full-day kindergarten program and about 1,600 that don’t.
Earlier this year, Governor Malloy proposed a bill requiring all school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, which is defined as least 900 hours during the school year, by the 2017-18 academic year.
“We believe that this is a wise investment, and we feel that those districts that haven’t moved in that direction should do it by 2017. It’s time,” said the governor. “We know it works. One of the biggest challenges in education is to implement all those things that we know actually work. Greater parental involvement works. We know longer school days work, and better access to technology works. We know that higher standards work in driving higher performance.”
Southington is already in compliance with the proposed legislation. The town’s push toward a full-day kindergarten system began in 2011, under the leadership of Assistant Superintendant Karen Smith, along with a team of administrators and teachers. They visited other districts. They researched curriculum, and spent a full year in parent forums addressing any questions or concerns.
The program was rolled out just two years ago, but teachers are already seeing the benefits.
“As I traveled around—especially early in the year—I spoke to first grade teachers, and they told me the story about how amazing it was to have students come in that were ready to learn from day one,” said Connellan. “There was very little adjustment time. We had kids, on their original screening, that were far advanced from any other classes before them. That’s only the academic side. On the social-emotional side we have students that were even more ready.”
So Malloy’s procession weaved its way around the hallways of Hatton School, stopping three more times at kindergarten classrooms and poking his head into a parent gathering for a Mother’s Day tea. The visit, conveniently scheduled for Teacher Appreciation Week, also offered Southington’s kindergarten teachers a first glance at their new state commissioner.
Wentzell had already been serving as an interim official, but she was sworn in earlier this week. The commissioner echoed Malloy’s commitment to early education.
“Kindergarten is an incredibly important year. It begins a student’s experience in our elementary and secondary education system, and we know that how they begin will have an impact on the rest of their time in the system,” she said. “A full day of kindergarten allows students more time to learn and build those social and emotional skills that they need to succeed in school.”
“It’s also really important to remember that learning in kindergarten is about teaching and fun and is infused with play,” she said. “Kindergarten serves as a bridge from the pre-Kindergarten experience and the more structured experiences students will have when they reach first grade.”