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Teachers see benefits of all-day kindergarten

State-funded program may be threatened by budget crisis

Mersaidies Brown says she likes school a lot.

She likes when it’s time to share. She likes exercising to an alphabet song. She likes getting stickers as a reward for reading.

But most of all, Mersaidies loves writing. She can spell big words like “monster,” “swimming” and “friends” with just a few letters wrong.

In fact, every one of Gigi Lemmon’s first-graders seems to like the half-hour writing period that follows lunch at Regal Elementary School.

“They complain when it’s time to clean up and go on to the next task,” said Lemmon, an eight-year teaching veteran for whom such afternoon enthusiasm is a new experience. In years past, Lemmon said, beginning first-graders would poop out after lunch.

She and other first-grade teachers attribute the change to a lengthening of the kindergarten day.

Armed with state money, Regal was one of five Spokane elementary schools that went to “all-day K” last year. Class is six hours long, instead of the typical 2 1/2 hours.

The program, which may be threatened by Washington state’s budget crisis, this year was expanded to 12 Spokane elementary schools and more than 200 statewide.

Some districts that don’t qualify for the state money continue offering all-day kindergarten as an option for parents willing to cover the cost of the additional hours – $280 to $290 a month, in the case of Central Valley School District. Central Valley also offers all-day K at the district’s expense to a few kindergarteners who are farthest behind their peers, as do some other districts, including West Valley.

In Washington, all-day kindergarten does not fall under the state’s definition of “basic education” – those things the state is constitutionally required to fund. But universal all-day kindergarten was among the recommendations of the Washington Learns steering committee, which was created by the Legislature in 2005 to study a host of education issues.

Headed by Gov. Chris Gregoire and including legislators from both major parties and business leaders, the committee wrote in its 2006 report that “students who attend full-day kindergarten are more likely than their peers to read at grade level, have good attendance and do well in science.” In response, the Legislature earmarked $51 million for two years to phase in all-day kindergarten.

“It was one of the largest (new) allocations for education in a lot of years,” said Mary Seaton, director of early learning at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

For the 2007-08 school year, money was given to 10 percent of all schools – those serving the poorest neighborhoods. This school year, it’s been expanded to 20 percent.

The goal is to add another 10 percent a year until state-funded all-day K is available “to every parent who wants it,” at an estimated cost of $190 million a year.

Advocates say it’s worth the money.

Susan Dellwo, a veteran teacher who now is a literacy coach at Regal, said that in years past, about 60 percent of the school’s beginning first-graders met reading benchmarks. This year, that increased to about 85 percent.

School districts in the Washington cities of Tonasket, Yakima, Hood Canal and Edmonds have found that kids who attend all-day kindergarten continue to do better, at least through third grade.

But the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research group that studied the matter at the request of Washington Learns, reported that the benefits “appear to erode almost completely” before students enter fourth grade. That’s based on its examination of 23 studies from around the country.

Getting the most out of an all-day kindergarten investment will require efforts toward eliminating that “fade-out,” the institute concluded. That’s something the Legislature attempted to address by requiring schools to assure kids are getting the assistance they need to transition into and out of kindergarten, Seaton said.

With the Legislature forced to cope with a two-year $3.2 billion shortfall, the future of the all-day kindergarten program is uncertain, said Seaton.

Lawmakers could stick with the 10-year plan to offer all-day kindergarten at all elementary schools. They also could stall the program at the 20 percent of schools now funded.

“Or, do they say, we can’t even afford those we’ve already funded?” said Seaton, who thinks that’s the least-likely possibility.

Ending the program “would be devastating to our kids,” said Steve Barnes, principal at Spokane’s Holmes Elementary School, where all-day classes used to be offered only to those kindergarteners who were struggling most.

“We believe in it strongly.”

Contact Dan Hansen at (509) 459-3938 or