Kindergartners in Becky Smith’s class have plenty of time for writing.
With a full-day kindergarten program, pupils like Cameron Wright can craft complete sentences in perfect penmanship.
“I am going to the monster jam,” the 6-year-old writes neatly across his whiteboard. The spelling is perfect.
Wright and other kindergartners at Liberty Elementary School are months ahead of most of their peers, who spend only two-and-a-half hours in school each day. Since 2004, the Liberty School District, located in south Spokane County, has offered only full-day kindergarten to its students.
Sasha Deyarmin, a first-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary, says all-day kindergarten prepares students better for the following year.
“The kids come to us having learned basic skills in kindergarten, and their social skills are high enough that they come into first grade ready to go,” Deyarmin said. “They’re ready to take it to the next level.”
Like Liberty, many school districts looking to improve school achievement are investing in pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs. During the 2001-02 school year, 43 percent of districts statewide offered full-day kindergarten or some other extended-day program.
The state is also pushing for more early-learning opportunities for children, especially in low-income areas where a student is less likely to have had access to education before entering kindergarten.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget allocates $41.6 million to expand access to voluntary all-day kindergarten throughout the state beginning next school year. Under the governor’s proposal, full-day kindergarten would be phased in beginning with the state’s poorest schools.
“Children that are coming to kindergarten who haven’t been read to for 20 minutes a day need at least three hours of reading a day to catch up,” said Lydia Fesler, a kindergarten reading coordinator for Spokane Public Schools. “What we’ve heard over and over is that the day is too short. … First-grade teachers have to do what kindergarten teachers should do.”
Spokane officials recently examined the benefits and challenges of full-day kindergarten and listed five potential schools where all-day kindergarten could be implemented.
Among them is Holmes Elementary School, where 90 percent of the students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch.
“It’s like we are doing mini-sprints all day,” said Holmes kindergarten teacher Amber Perry. “We really spend the first half of the year on simple social skills.”
Last year, with its federal Title I dollars – the money given to low-income schools – Holmes began offering an extended-day program for its neediest learners. But there’s not enough money for every student.
The state now funds only half-day kindergarten, so districts charge tuition or use general funds to make up the difference. School district officials are worried that the governor’s push for free all-day kindergarten, if not fully funded, could tax an already over-burdened system. Washington lawmakers do not fully fund mandates already in place and continue to add more requirements for student learning, school officials said.
Liberty Superintendent Duane Reidenbach said the district chose to use its limited resources to provide free all-day kindergarten, but declining enrollment districtwide is a concern. Schools are funded by the state based on the number of full-time students.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep it, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to unless state funding comes through,” Reidenbach said.
Central Valley School District began offering full-day kindergarten in 2000 and now has nine full-day classes. Parents pay $250 to $260 a month, but state assistance programs are available.
Spokane Public Schools officials said that district is looking for more support from the state before adding an expensive new program districtwide.
“We want to look at what the Legislature funds before we do anything,” said Nancy Stowell, associate superintendent for teaching and learning for Spokane schools.
Stowell said that implementing full-day kindergarten would require training for teachers.
If the program became successful, eventually the district would need to modify its curriculum across all grade levels because children would be more advanced.
Research shows that children in full-day kindergarten, especially low-income children, would need less remediation. However, not everyone agrees on the long-term benefits.
Some national education research and policy studies show that by the fifth grade there is no difference in test scores between schools with and those without full-day programs for kindergartners.
There are other problems, too.
While it isn’t a problem for Spokane, where the enrollment continues to decline, Central Valley has a shortage of classroom space as enrollment surges.
The state’s school construction assistance program formula recognizes kindergarten students as full-time students when a school is built or modernized, but the construction formula doesn’t offer a solution for classroom space, otherwise. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the space needs for full-time kindergarten would most likely be addressed by adding portable classrooms.
However, some working parents who struggle with their child’s half-day schedules would welcome all-day programs. It minimizes transitions for children throughout the day.
“The reasons why we chose it was less time spent transporting,” said parent Brenda Thosath, whose daughter attends a tuition-based all-day kindergarten at South Pines Elementary.
With a traditional kindergarten schedule, “you get them there, and an hour later you’re back to pick them up, then you have to go back and pick up your other child,” Thosath said.
Liberty Elementary Principal Lori Johnson said that some parents were initially concerned about a longer day, but the students don’t take naps and don’t seem to need them.
Thosath said her experience bears that out.
“On Mondays, Chloe goes all day and then we go over to ballet class, come home and get ready for Scouts, and she gets up the next morning ready to go,” Thosath said. “So many of the kids today are so used to being in day care and preschool that more of the kids are used to that all-day schedule.”
Terri Drexel has taught both half-day and full-day kindergarten at South Pines and said there are always going to be some children who aren’t ready for a full day of school at the age of 5.
But “sometimes it’s more of a problem for the parents,” Drexel said. “They’re not ready to give up their babies.”
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