Washington lawmakers hope to implement full-day kindergarten statewide by 2018, provided the state can come up with funding.
Spokane Public Schools, the region’s largest district, is considering implementing full-day kindergarten at all of its elementary schools next fall. Currently 15 of the district’s 34 elementary schools offer the program.
Numerous studies show a clear and immediate advantage of full-day over half-day kindergarten; there are significant gains in math and reading by the end of the school year, especially among low-income children and second-language learners, leaving students better prepared to start first grade.
But evidence that academic gains are sustained into third grade or beyond is hard to find, nationally as well as locally.
“I have been a proponent of full-day K for a long time,” said Steve Barnes, principal at Holmes Elementary School, one of the first five schools in Spokane Public Schools to have the program, starting in 2007-’08. “I honestly think it’s the best thing we do for kids to get them a good start in school.”
According to the district’s budget, the cost of increasing half-day to full-day kindergarten is about $150,000 per school, with two or more classes depending on the size of the school. Shelly Redinger, the district’s new superintendent, said under the plan to establish full-day programs districtwide, “We would have the ability for everyone to access (all-day kindergarten), but some of the schools, like Wilson Elementary, may be a tuition-based model.” If the district decides to charge tuition for all-day kindergarten at some schools, it would be calculated on a sliding scale depending on income, and it would be free at low-income schools, she said.
Results are inconsistent
An analysis of third-grade reading assessment scores in Spokane Public Schools and Central Valley School District shows there’s no consistent upswing in scores for students who were in all-day kindergarten.
For example, Holmes’ 2008-’09 third-graders who had attended half-day kindergarten scored higher than third-graders tested in 2010-’11 and 2011-’12, after Holmes implemented all-day kindergarten, according to state data. But Holmes’ 2009-’10 third-graders who had attended half-day kindergarten scored lower compared with third-graders in 2010-’11 and 2011-’12.
Those inconsistencies were found in the reading assessment scores for all eight elementary schools in the two districts that have offered all-day kindergarten long enough to be reflected in the results. Central Valley has offered full-day kindergarten since 2001-’02.
Multiple variables can contribute to such inconsistent test results.
“On average, children who attend full-day kindergarten are more disadvantaged than those who do not,” said Milagros Nores, associate director of research at the National Institute for Early Education Research.
That’s true of Spokane Public Schools and Central Valley School District, where the schools with full-day kindergarten serve low-income populations.
Mobility is typically high in those schools too, which means by third grade many of the students who attended full-day kindergarten may have transferred out and others who didn’t have all-day kindergarten may have transferred in.
Health, family, neighborhood and individual teachers also are variables that can contribute to test inconsistencies, experts say.
“Randomized trials that provide equivalent groups in full-day and half-day are very rare,” Nores said.
Hanover Research, a Washington, D.C.-based for-profit company that provides professional research services, reviewed 299 studies that looked at full-day kindergarten.
According to Hanover’s report, four studies “contend that the effects of full-day kindergarten wear off quickly, dissipating shortly after first-grade entry. Two other studies go so far as to state that the effects of full-day kindergarten are seen into the third grade, while one daring study claims full-day kindergarten can impact student academic achievement well into middle school.”
Classes helpful socially, emotionally
Despite the inconsistent results, local educators maintain that full-day kindergarten is important for kids.
Holmes Elementary teacher Emily Sobczuk said, “In half-day K, the kids would just get started on something, and then I’d have to tell them to clean up.”
In full-day kindergarten, the kids don’t have to rush, so “they have a chance to absorb what they are doing and explore,” she said.
Barnes, the principal at Holmes, said he believes all-day kindergarten “helps academically, socially and emotionally.” Kids “get breakfast and lunch, so two hot meals per day. They get a structured day.”
Redinger, the district superintendent, adds, “A lot of it is to make sure the kids have a safe environment to learn and give them every opportunity to be successful. Even if they’re only on par with their peers in second and third grade, that’s a huge win because what would have been the alternative?”