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More Schools Go To Full-Day Kindergarten As Academic Demands Become More Rigorous

Lower Enrollments In Early Grades Also Give Districts More Flexibility

By KATHLEEN MEGAN

June 01, 2012

When Glastonbury schools offered a full-day kindergarten option for this fall, Superintendent Alan Bookman expected about two-thirds of the children would go. But when parents heard about the more rigorous array of skills children are now expected to attain in kindergarten, many more pressed for the all-day program.

"People were genuinely concerned about whether their children would miss out educationally," Bookman said. Parents were told that if they chose the half-day program, they would have to do some additional work after school with their kids to be sure they kept up.

This fall, all but 14 of Glastonbury's 374 kindergartners will attend school all day.

All-day kindergarten is gaining momentum across the state. As academic standards have been ratcheted up, and declining enrollments in the younger grades make classroom space more readily available, more school districts are making that move.

This school year, 73 school districts provide a full-day kindergarten program to all children; that's 40 percent more than five years ago when 52 districts did so. Sixty-three percent of Connecticut kindergartners are in full-time programs, and most of the state's large cities offer full-time programs.

The state Department of Education doesn't yet have a count of how many districts are making the change to offer full-day to all kindergartners this fall. But according to a survey by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, it's at least 15.

"That's more than has happened in one year before," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the superintendents group. "It's good to see that more and more districts are willing to bite that bullet, even in tough times."

The extra cost of offering a full-day program is picked up by the districts, not the state, Cirasuolo noted.

In a report released late last year, the superintendents recommended that more districts adopt all-day programs for their kindergartners.

"Most of the research indicates the more time they spend in school, the more they learn," Cirasuolo said.

In the past, people didn't put much value on young children's learning opportunities, said Cathy Grace, director of early childhood policy at the Children's Defense Fund, a national organization that backs high-quality full-day kindergarten for all children.

"We now know that children learn from the very first day," Grace said. "The quality of their early childhood experience contributes mightily to their success."

Tougher Academic Demands

With the the state's adoption in 2010 of the national Common Core Standards, educators' support for full-day kindergarten has grown more adamant.

Under the standards, kindergartners are expected to add and subtract numbers up to 10; spell simple words phonetically; and describe measurable attributes of objects such as length and weight. They also are expected to distinguish the shades of meaning among verbs for instance, the different meanings of walk, march, strut and prance.

"The bottom line is we cannot deliver our present-day kindergarten curriculum in a half-day model," said Thomas Y. McDowell, the superintendent in Wethersfield, where full-day kindergarten will be offered for all this fall.

Many of the children will come from a full-day pre-school or daycare program, McDowell said, so a full-day of kindergarten is not a big adjustment.

"They all love school, they are all hungry for everything. They can't wait," McDowell said. "It's a home run for everyone."

McDowell, who worked in Massachusetts in a school system with full-day kindergarten, said a first-grade teacher told him that children who had been in full-day kindergarten programs arrived in first grade with mid-year first-grade skills. "That's very powerful," McDowell said.

He said that first-grade teachers will have to increase the rigor of their curriculum to be ready to challenge children from full-day kindergarten so that the early education advantage isn't lost.

"If, as a first-grade teacher, I teach the same way," he said, "I lose that growth."

The same will be true in the higher grades as the full-day cohort moves forward.

The longer kindergarten day comes at a price: McDowell said the extra expense in Wethersfield will be about $650,000.

Bookman had expected to spend an additional $490,000 on full-day kindergarten, but the nearly universal interest will drive the cost up to $770,000. Because of a decline in elementary school enrollment, Bookman said, that dollar figure will be largely offset by cutbacks in staff for other grades. About a decade ago, Bookman said, Glastonbury had about 500 kindergartners about 20 percent more than next year.

Eliminating noon-time kindergarten buses also will produce savings for both school systems.

While parents' support for full-day kindergarten has often been based on the need for daycare or for convenience, parents now talk about the importance of more instructional time.

Janet Cahow of Glastonbury said she wishes the full-day program had started sooner. Her oldest son, Jay, is currently in a half-day kindergarten program, where she said he has so much presented to him that she makes it a point to work with him for an hour a day to reinforce what he has learned. Cahow said she is glad her two younger children will have the full-day program.

"I really feel like that's best," Cahow said. "It's what's happening across the nation. I feel like it would have given my son a better advantage. ... You just want your kid to be on the cutting edge like everybody else. It feels more like daycare if they are only there for a couple of hours."

'The Gift Of Time'

When superintendents and teachers talk about the advantages of a full-day kindergarten program, they not only emphasize delivering curriculum more effectively but also giving children time to engage in playful learning activities that have been the hallmark of kindergarten puppets, puzzles and building blocks, which now often get squeezed in favor of academics.

The 2 1/2-hour half-day program has forced teachers "to make a lot of hard choices about where our focus needs to be," said Colleen McCabe, a kindergarten teacher in Simsbury. "The days are very short and very busy."

"It's the gift of time," Erin Murray, assistant superintendent in Simsbury, said of full-day kindergarten. "Because of the academic rigor and expectations with the common core, our focus has been heavily on the academic pieces while the social/emotional/physical focus was not so big."

The full-day program will allow kids in kindergarten to have art, music or physical education every day, which isn't the case now, Murray said.

It also will give students more time for reading, writing and math, she said. Simsbury's full-day program will cost about $500,000 more than half-day, but the town plans to offset the cost by taking in more children through the Greater Hartford Region Open Choice program, Murray said. Towns are reimbursed for each child they take.

Katie Bristol, a Simsbury kindergarten teacher, said the plan to offer a full-day program in the fall will give her "a much better opportunity to get to know the kids, on a much more personal level."

Bristol now teaches 46 children a day divided between morning and afternoon sessions, and though she said the days run smoothly and she runs "a pretty tight ship, we are constantly moving, moving moving There's not time for them to breathe."

In the fall, though, she will teach about half that number of students for a full day. She expects to have more time to tailor her teaching toward her students' interests and to create individual learning plans for them. And, Bristol said, there will be more time for children to sit and enjoy a story or talk to each other to develop language skills.

In Glastonbury, Sharon Rickards, who has taught kindergarten for 40 years, said it already has changed dramatically. Years ago kindergarten teachers taught children the alphabet. Now, most kids arrive knowing the alphabet and leave kindergarten reading.

Rickards said the full day will allow teachers the time for academics but also give children the chance to be 5 years old, with time to play with each other, to play with blocks and have puppet shows.

She had intended to retire this year, but the chance to teach full-day kindergarten rather than two half-day classes changed her mind.

Melissa Doyle, who also teaches in Glastonbury, said she's looking forward to having more time to go deeper with everything with reading, with math, with writing, "and being able to slow the pace a little bit and to bring fun back. Not that it was ever gone, but it always felt like you had to be a little bit rushed."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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