Learning trend: Kindergarten becomes an all-day affair

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ringed by kneeling 5-year-olds, teacher Casondra Johnson says she loves the new full-day kindergarten program here, simply because now she has more time for every subject. "You name it, reading, math, social studies, art, reading, writing ... I don't have to rush like a maniac to get it all done," says Ms. Johnson, a nine-year veteran at Daniel Webster Elementary School.

As she reads from a storybook, Ms. Johnson explains story concepts, spells out words, and shows pictures. She says the atmosphere is richer than in her previous half-day programs. There is even time to help one child who can't follow the story line. "This is a no-brainer in my opinion," says Johnson. "It's a win for me, the kids, parents, next year's teacher, and school administrators."

Armed with studies showing the importance of early education in lifelong academic success and the testimony of schools that have long been providing it, more and more states are embracing full-day kindergarten as the antidote to a host of educational ills.

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"America is finally coming to understand the tremendous importance of building an earlier foundation for later learning," says Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

Thirty-five years ago, only 11 percent of US schools embraced the idea. But by 2000, 60 percent of school districts nationwide had kids enrolled in full-day programs. Now California, the nation's largest and arguably most educationally troubled state, is getting in on the action, following recent moves in Maryland, New Mexico, and Massachusetts.

Once a leader in American education, California has slipped in per-pupil spending and has seen test scores gradually plummet. To halt that downward spiral, the Pasadena school board approved full-day programs for all 24 of the city's elementary schools next fall, while 33 other California districts are trying out pilot programs. In March, residents here will vote on a $3.8 billion bond measure that will include $100 million for kindergarten facilities in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest.

Experimenting nationwide

Two years ago, Maryland decided to make its kindergartens full day by 2007 to fight achievement gaps in many of its urban districts. New Mexico is close to wrapping up a five-year plan for all state-wide districts to at least offer it. And Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said in last week's state-of-the-state address that government coffers will fund the program for any district that doesn't yet have it.

California's largest district still has 3,013 kindergartens operating only half day. In fact, mitigated in part by cost, the necessity for new facilities in some cases, and the concerns of some parents who say their 5-year-olds are not yet ready to be in school all day, the moves to full-day kindergarten are still mostly voluntary. While 39 states mandate at least half-day kindergarten, only nine require full-day programs, including Louisiana and Georgia.

"This is not a new idea in Georgia," says Dr. Ida Love of the state board of education, which moved toward full-day kindergarten over two decades ago. "Everything we've seen in this state points to the fact that children are far more academically advanced by being involved in a full day of kindergarten."

Here in Pasadena, a posted schedule breaks down a day's activities into 20-minute to half-hour segments, from 7:50 a.m. to 2:20 pm. The 6.5-hour day includes reading, recess, math, lunch, rest, reading, art and social studies, and language development.

Johnson says about 3 to 5 percent of parents withhold their children, saying they are not ready for that much activity. But most parents love it, she says, for the educational benefits, the diminished logistical problems for working parents, and the savings on day-care expenses.

"Parents in this district who have looked at the change closely are clamoring to have it made permanent," says Randy Ertll, spokesman for the Pasadena Unified School District. Moreover, national experts say public school districts implementing the idea attract the parents of children who might otherwise be sent to private school. And they say the program can help children with limited English skills to overcome literacy problems in formative years.

"The word is getting around that the advantages far outweigh the extra costs, " says Mr. Ertll.

Cutbacks and added costs

Schools districts faced with cutbacks worry about additional costs. But in many cases, schools can use existing facilities and staff. Sharon Lefler, principal of Daniel Webster Elementary, says her school didn't need more funding: They were paying three kindergarten teachers full time anyway, and already had three separate rooms allocated for kindergarten.

"[Full-day programs] are more beneficial in creating confidence in kids when they reach first grade," says Ellen Junn, dean in the College of Human Development and Community Service at California State University, Fullerton. Indeed, she, Ginsberg, and others say that studies in states that have moved to full-day kindergarten are proving conclusively that such children do far better in math, reading, writing, and other key skills.

Nonetheless, some experts say it is best for states to leave the programs optional, and that further scrutiny of existing programs is needed. "Simply adding more time to kindergarten programs that are not successful will not make them more successful," says NAEYC's Ginsberg. "There needs to be assurances that the programs are well devised, executed, and staffed by properly trained teachers."

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