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State Rep. Carolyn Comitta Observes Full-Day Kindergarten Program

         Representative Carolyn Comitta and Dr. Scanlon visit a kindergarten classroom at Fern Hill Elementary School           Representative Carolyn Comitta receives an "apple pie" prepared by kindergarten students as part of their dramatic play            

State Representative Carolyn Comitta recently paid a visit to Fern Hill Elementary School to witness the District's full-day, play-based kindergarten program in action. The program, which is now in its second year, allows children time to play – in both directed and non-directed ways – as a critical part of their school day.

Representative Comitta visited each of the school's four kindergarten classrooms, where students were running apple orchards and a restaurant as part of dramatic play. The play component of the students’ day always centers on a lesson they are learning.

"This is so impressive to see," said Representative Comitta, an alumna of Fern Hill Elementary School. "Everyone is engaged. They are clear about what they are doing. They are learning and having fun."

The District consulted with child development expert and author Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek to design the program.

"Our kindergarten curriculum was built with the knowledge that play is a central component of children’s growth," said Dr. Tammi Florio, Director of Elementary Education for the West Chester Area School District. "It helps them make meaning of their world, learn about themselves and how things work, and guides them as they learn how to get along with others and develop the crucial social skills that are necessary for them to flourish."

As part of the curriculum, students plan their play scenarios, take on roles, create storylines, and make props as they engage in dramatic and construction play. Language skills are fostered, and children learn to take risks, work in groups, and focus their attention in new ways. Representative Carolyn Comitta helps kindergarten students complete their puzzle.

"We believe that play-based learning forms the foundation for future academic success as our students advance through the grades and face increasing academic rigor," added Florio.

District officials are closely monitoring student progress, which is already evident. According to Florio, 87 percent of full-day kindergarten students were reading at or above grade level at the end of the 2017-18 school year, compared to 67 percent in the District's half-day program the year before.

Forty percent of full-day students scored advanced on the spring writing assessment, compared to 32 percent in half-day kindergarten.

Math skills were also significantly higher for full-day kindergarten students compared to half-day when it came to knowing names and values of coins, understanding concepts of length, width, area, and capacity, and applying concepts of subtraction.

Occupational therapy referrals were down by one-third compared to the previous year, which Dr. Florio credited to a greater emphasis on fine motor skills in full-day kindergarten.

"Not only did we achieve similar or better results with full-day kindergarten compared to half-day, but we also did it with more kids," said Florio.

There were 892 students enrolled in full-day kindergarten last year compared to 671 in half-day kindergarten in 2016-17. With the implementation of full-day kindergarten, the District saw an influx of students from charter schools.

“We estimated that full-day kindergarten would bring back between 35 to 40 students from charter schools. When we began the 2017-18 school year, we had 85 children return, giving us roughly two-thirds of what we needed to cover the costs of the program," said Dr. Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District.

The District was incurring the tuition cost of approximately 685 students a year to charter schools.  In Pennsylvania, the laws require schools districts to pay the tuition for charter school students or about $13,000 per regular education student, and $30,000 for a child with special needs. "In essence, we were already paying for full-day kindergarten; we just weren’t offering it in our schools," said Scanlon.

Although official enrollment numbers will not be available until October 1, Dr. Scanlon estimates another 40-50 students enrolled in the WCASD this year, reducing charter school tuition costs for the District this year by approximately $700,000.