Contracts for Kindergarten

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In a program being hailed as a model collaborative venture between the education and child-care sectors, the Milwaukee public schools have contracted with five private day-care centers to provide half- and full-day kindergarten for disadvantaged 4- and 5-year-olds.

Faced with a shortage of space and growing pressure to offer child care and education in one setting, the district last month placed public-school teachers at the day-care sites to work with personnel there to provide both services. About 180 children are enrolled in the program.

According to a study of public-school early-childhood programs conducted by the Bank Street College of Education and Wellesely College, about half of the states with prekindergarten laws allow schools to subcontract with other agencies to operate part or all of their preschool services.

In a few cases, schools contract out for alternative or transitional kindergarten programs.

But experts say the Milwaukee program appears to be the first in the nation to offer a standard public-school kindergarten program in a day-care environment.

"Public schools generally have not been willing to subcontract something that they saw as part of their regular educational mission," said Anne W. Mitchell, co-director of the Bank Street/Wellesley Public-School Early Childhood Study.

The degree to which the Milwaukee schools and day-care providers have worked jointly to design and implement their program is also unique, observers say.

If it succeeds, educators and child-care experts predict, Milwaukee's initiative could become a national prototype to promote collaboration and foster improvements in the provision, continuity, and quality of early-childhood services.

It could also, they add, help ease the burden on schools of increased expectations for the provision of a range of social services.

"The bottom line is to provide quality care and education to our children," said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

In view of the growing number of disadvantaged young children in need of services, he said, "there is no way we could gear up for schools to do this alone."

"We should take advantage of existing facilities and work out arrangements like this," Mr. Sava added.

No More 'Trudging to Buses'

The program linking the schools and day-care centers was authorized this past summer by the Wisconsin legislature. The district is funding it with $600,000 from a $3-million allotment from the state that is part of a desegregation-lawsuit settlement.

State Representative Barbara L. Notestein, who sponsored the bill, said she convened an early-childhood task force after becoming convinced that early-years programs "could make a very big difference" in breaking the cycle of failure for poor children and curbing high dropout rates.

The task force, which included representatives of the public schools, the University of Wisconsin, children's advocacy groups, the state health and social-services department, and child-care providers, modeled its proposals after a Milwaukee program launched several years ago for "at risk" middle- and high-school students.

That program allows the district to contract with nonprofit private schools for alternative programs.

Janice L. Ereth, public-affairs manager for the Milwaukee Family Service, said the task force felt linking education and child care would ''provide better programming for children and make it easier for working parents" to participate.

A primary consideration, Ms. Notestein added, was a shortage of space in the school system, which estimates that up to 380 new classrooms will be needed over five years to accommodate rising enrollments of 4- and 5-year-olds.

The plan also was designed to save on the cost of busing children from day-care centers to schools and back, and to ease the stress faced by children who must switch locales several times a day.

"It's tough to see a 4- or 5-year-old go trudging out to buses," said Kathryn A. Keifer, executive director of Ebenezer Child Care, one of the centers participating in the program.

Although the pilot programs initially may be structured to create separate timeframes for education and child care, the ideal is to offer an "all-day, comprehensive early-childhood experience," Ms. Ereth said.

"We are trying to break down turfs and say we are all here to meet the needs of the child," she said.

"We tend to divide up our families by funding source and institution," Ms. Notestein said. "We don't look at families holistically. This is one first step toward doing that."

Certification Required

The Wisconsin law permits the Milwaukee school system to contract with licensed private, nonprofit, nonsectarian day-care centers to provide "developmental" day care and early-childhood education for at least 10 hours a day for children through age 6.

Centers may offer kindergarten half-days for children aged 4 and 5, or full days for 5-year-olds.

At least half of the children enrolled must be considered "at risk" by virtue of living in poverty; having a school-age parent; being referred for protective services; or having language, motor, developmental, educational, social, or behavioral problems.

The school board reimburses each contracting day-care center for eligible children based on the average per-pupil cost for kindergarten pupils enrolled in the district, with an allowance for teacher salaries.

Instruction must be provided or supervised by state-certified kindergarten teachers with degrees in early-childhood education, and pupil-to-staff ratios must not exceed 12 to 1.

'Active Learning' Curricula

Millie Hoffman, a curriculum specialist with the Milwaukee schools, said contracts were awarded to day-care centers with curricular objectives similar to the school system's.

A panel of early-childhood educators, community-group leaders, retired Head Start personnel, and licensing officials advised the school board on contract awards.

A typical program, Ms. Hoffman said, exposes children to basic concepts and readiness skills in language, literacy, numbers, art, mu8sic, drama, science, social studies, physical education, and social and emotional development.

The school system has encouraged "active learning," Ms. Keifer said, through exploration and play. Centers under contract, she said, will not "inundate" children with formal schooling and workbooks.

The program is also designed to encourage extensive parental involvement in decisionmaking and program planning and activities.

Though the legislation directs the school board to evaluate the program partly through standardized basic-skills tests, administrators said testing and other assessment mechanisms had not yet been determined.

Potential Stumbling Blocks

Through collaboration between school and human-services personnel, officials said, they were able to harmonize school administrative policies and day-care licensing rules.

But despite their intensive efforts to coordinate the school and day-care programs, administrators of both systems said, many issues remain unresolved.

Some school officials, for example, had hoped the program would be funded through new state aid, allowing the schools to use desegregation funds for other compensatory programs, pointed out Mary Bills, a member of the Milwaukee school board.

Wisconsin school districts are mandated to provide kindergarten for 5-year-olds and may use state aid to offer programs for 4-year-olds.

Ms. Notestein said a proposal to channel aid to the day-care centers through the school-aid formula was vetoed by the governor.

To keep programs from becoming too academic or custodial, Ms. Bills added, "there needs to be more discussion" of curricular guidelines. She also noted that the provision for standardized testing counters "good child development" practices and may not be enforced.

Mr. Sava, who said he also opposes formal tests for young children, cautioned that the school system must seek ways to monitor the program to ensure "that children receive the quality of service that was intended."

Praising the initiative, Edwardel15lZigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University and a prominent expert in child development, said its association with the schools would foster "a sense of responsibility to children" and help ensure quality control.

Mr. Zigler has proposed a contrasting model program that would house professionally run child-care systems within the public schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1988.)

Lonely Teachers, Pay Disparity

Ms. Bills noted that the local teacher union's seniority policy, which is likely to place newer teachers in the centers over those with more experience, "might not necessarily result in the best match-up" of teachers for the day-care program.

James R. Colter, executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers' Association, confirmed that all the teachers assigned to the day-care centers are new to the school system, and said they feel isolated from other school personnel.

"They're lonely teachers out in an agency," Mr. Colter said.

In a recent meeting with union officials, he noted, the teachers aired concerns on issues ranging from how to reconcile differences in day-care-center and union-contract work schedules to where to pick up their paychecks.

Other observers said the differing pay scales of day-care and school staff members also could be a source of friction.

Mr. Zigler said placing a day-care-center employee alongside a teacher earning twice the pay could produce "a very abrasive situation."

But he added that "over the long haul," the disparity could result in "an upgrade in the pay and quality" of day-care staffs.

Although some certified teachers have preferred to remain in day-care settings despite the lower wages, Ms. Keifer said that the new revenue generated by the Milwaukee program would allow providers to increase the salary of staff members with early-childhood degrees.

Such pay increases, she said, could eventually "filter down" to staff members at other levels of experience.

"What I see us doing is building a new child-care professional sector," she said.

Mr. Zigler of Yale University also predicted that programs merging day-care and education would foster integration across racial and socioeconomic lines, in much the same fashion that magnet schools funded under desegregation plans have.

Taps Community Resources

Ms. Mitchell, who noted that desegregation funds have increased the enrollment in early-childhood programs in many communities, said preschool efforts have been effectively used as a desegregation tool "to induce families to use schools who wouldn't otherwise."

Fern Marx, research director for the Wellesley study, suggested that the Milwaukee arrangement would help disadvantaged children make "a smoother transition" from the day-care centers to school because they would already be "known within the school system."

One of the most promising aspects of the program, she said, is that it makes use of the public-school system without bypassing community resources--and may reap improvements in both.

"One of the biggest concerns with the entry of preschools into public education was that the public schools would not make use of expertise within the community," she said. "Here you have a beautiful example of how to creatively coordinate public-school interests with those of the community."

Vol. 08, Issue 06

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories