Just 18 months ago, full-day kindergarten was the most repeated three-word phrase on Loudoun campaign trails. Candidates running for local, state and even federal offices promised to push school leaders to hurry up and provide a full academic day to every kindergartner in the county.
At that time, the then-newly appointed superintendent, Eric Williams, was criticized for not being able to deliver a price tag for what it would cost to provide universal full-day kindergarten, a program every other school division in the region offers.
But Williams and administrators in the school planning and instruction departments have been at work behind the scenes. For the first time on Tuesday, they unveiled specifics about what obstacles stand in the way to expand the full-day kindergarten program and what it will take to get over them.
Since 2014, the school system has increased its full-day kindergarten offerings from 11 percent to 52 percent. The plan for now is by this fall to provide a full school day to as many as 4,600 kindergartners, or 82 percent.
But the trick will be getting that figure to 100 percent. That will take creative options to free up classroom space in fast-growing parts of the county where school buildings are already cramped.
“To get to full-day kindergarten at a lot of these schools, we need to take some sort of action,” he said.
In his presentation to School Board members Tuesday, Williams went through each of the district’s planning zones to explain what it would take to expand the program. There is space in every elementary school in the Western Loudoun and Eastern Loudoun planning zones. But the remaining planning districts—Ashburn, Central Loudoun (Leesburg area), Dulles North and Dulles South—have several elementary schools that will not have consistent space for full-day kindergarten through fiscal year 2021.
In Ashburn, those schools are: Steuart W. Weller, Ashburn, Belmont Station, Cedar Lane and Dominion Trail; although, Steuart W. Weller is slated for a classroom addition in 2020 that would allow for more kindergarten slots. In the Leesburg area, the five schools facing the same constraints are: Catoctin, Lucketts, Cool Spring, Evergreen Mill and Sycolin Creek.
Williams said, even when two new elementary schools open in Dulles North and Dulles South—ES-28 in 2018 and ES-31 in 2019—most elementary schools in those districts will be too full to provide full-day kindergarten.
“Now, let’s talk solutions,” the superintendent said, adding that the School Board could add classroom trailers, build classroom additions, or redraw attendance zone boundaries to make more room.
The school system has four classroom trailers that have not yet been assigned schools, plus it has five three-room additions included in the School Board’s Capital Improvement Program. Which schools get those additions is also a decision the board has yet to make.
Williams said the School Board will also want to think about what to do for families who still prefer a half-day option for their kindergartner. One option is to consider allowing those kids to attend a full-day class for just the morning or just the afternoon. “That’s not ideal, but it is an option that parents could have,” Williams said.
Following the superintendent’s presentation, most School Board members said they’d support minimal targeted boundary changes if it meant providing a full academic day to every kindergartener.
“I know that boundary changes are unsettling for folks, but I think we have to do that,” Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said. “I can’t imagine we’d leave so much space at one school and then go to Board of Supervisors and say can we build classroom additions?”
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) was the one board member who said he’d favor classroom additions over more boundary changes. “Our populations change so frequently, it becomes a concern if we have to keep flexing our boundaries to handle that,” he added.
Almost every board member said they would not support an option for families to allow their child to attend just half of a full-day class.
“I can’t imagine being that teacher who’s responsible for the student who’s missing the science lesson in the afternoon,” Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) went further to suggest that full-day kindergarten be the county’s new normal. “We don’t offer half-day first grade or second grade,” he said. “Why would we offer half-day kindergarten when our goal is to get to 100 percent full day? Let’s keep our focus there.”
Williams told the board to expect to see a plan with more clear path going forward at a June board meeting. “That will be an action item on the agenda,” he added. “And as we move forward, we’ll have greater clarity on what exactly it will take to get us to that 100 percent goal.”