The Westford School Committee is quickly approaching their summer break and Monday’s meeting was spent bringing conclusion to several lingering issues before that hiatus begins.
Most notably, the School Committee approved a proposal by Superintendent Bill Olsen to begin a pilot full-day kindergarten program with each of Westford’s three lower elementary schools.
The program, which is expected to begin in the 2016-17 School Year, would be limited to only one class, with a surplus of applications being determined by a lottery. In the case of too many applications in one school and not enough in another, parents would be able to bring their children to another school provided that they could provide transportation.
Olsen extolled the values of full-day kindergarten, but also noted that a citizens’ advisory committee provided evidence that any value from full-day kindergarten versus half-day kindergarten is not noticeable by the second grade.
According to Olsen, this approach was developed as a balance between a significant amount of parents and kindergarten staff who believe full-day kindergarten is needed in Westford and the data presented, as well as another set of parents who fear the loss of half-day kindergarten.
Full-Day Kindergarten Citizens’ Advisory Committee Chairman Rob Michael told the board that there were far more cost effective ways to improve student achievement within Westford, and that a list of those things for Westford’s needs should be examined.
School Committee Member Arthur Benoit indicated that Olsen does provide an overarching plan for student achievement that meets the priority list, also noting that money for full-day kindergarten would have to come before other partially funded initiatives in progress, like the Westford Academy Mandarin Language program.
Due to those other priorities and future priorities yet to be known, School Committee Member Erika Kohl vociferously opposed full-day kindergarten in any form, with several other members of the committee opposing it as well unless all funding for the program would be provided by fees rather than taxpayers.
The committee voted 5-1-0, with Kohl as the long dissenting vote.
Olsen also said that the full-day pilot will also not expand the half-day curriculum, which was also a point of discussion among several concerned parents who returned before the committee to voice their view that Westford’s kindergarten age children are given too much homework, damaging their opinion of school work in later years.
In other agenda items, the School Committee also looked at two lingering components of the School Department bullying policy.
Following a tie vote at an earlier meeting, additional advice was obtained from the department’s legal counsel over wording in the policy that had been opposed by Kohl, who sought greater clarity in the policy by moving to add additional language into state law to the policy.
Olsen advised against this proposal, with School Committee Chairman Tom Clay adding that he preferred the practice of referencing laws rather than quoting them, as laws can change without fanfare, creating a potential discrepancy that could leave the schools vulnerable to litigation if certain situations arise.
On this item, Kohl’s initiative did not come to a vote, with the original wording recommended by legal counsel passing 5-1-0, with Kohl in opposition.
The matter of searching cell phones in matters of extreme emergencies also came back before the board.
In earlier meetings, the board had approved the practice pending approval by Westford Police Department Chief Thomas McEnaney.
Olsen had been informed by McEnaney that specific language by the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office had been recommended for other school districts in the area that would provide the legal basis for searching a cell phone without a warrant on school grounds under extreme circumstances.
This proposal passed 5-1-0, with School Committee Member Chris Sanders voting in opposition.