It's about time to level the playing field for children

"Full-day kindergarten will deliver immediate, as well as long-term academic and social benefits, especially if we begin slowly, and we start in at-risk schools."

- Governor Kenny Guinn, January 20, 2003

When Principal Pat Carpenter and her six kindergarten teachers reported on Empire's full-day kindergarten program, it was hard not be caught up in their enthusiasm. In relating the "amazing" progress their little people are making while enrolled in Carson City's only public full-day kindergarten, they demonstrated the power of time and dedication. But then, I'm a sucker for a success story.

Currently 114 of Nevada's at-risk schools offer full-day kindergarten programs. To qualify for funding, schools must have at least 50.5 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Empire has 83 percent. In addition, two-thirds of Empire's students are English Language Learners (ELL).

Today more than 65 percent of U.S. children attend full-day kindergarten, up from only 28 percent in 1978. Why the increase?

One reason for the growth in full-day kindergartens is the change in expectations. Traditionally, kindergarten focused on social and emotional development. That mission has largely been replaced by academics. Not that young children can't or shouldn't be taught to read and write, but they still need lots of guidance in how to share, take turns, disagree politely and follow directions. To meet the demands of a more challenging curriculum in a half-day program, often those critical social skills get short-changed.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, full-day kindergartens level the playing field for disadvantaged youngsters. Children for whom English is not their first language or who come from poor or illiterate families are given an even start by front-loading language and school experiences, by immersing them in school language and culture.

What about research? The Nevada Association of School Superintendents cites research that finds children who attended full-day kindergarten:

• had fewer grade retentions

• made greater progress in social skills

• had higher reading scores in primary grades

• spent more time in individualized instruction

• enjoyed a less hurried school day with more varied experiences.

For those reasons, according to Carson City School District Superintendent Dr. Mary Pierczynski, who is president of the association, its iNVest 2007 plan supports full-day kindergarten, especially for at-risk schools.

Nevada school superintendents aren't the only ones who approve of full-day kindergarten. Schools in Edmonton, Alberta (of the much-touted Empowerment Plan) also have full-day kindergartens. A longitudinal study by José da Costa at the University of Alberta showed at-risk, full-day kindergartners keeping up with, and even outperforming, their middle-class counterparts. Full-day kindergarten helped children become proficient both academically and socially.

Several studies though, including one by the Rand Corporation, suggest the gains made in full-day kindergarten programs don't last. However, many early studies did not control for class-size, curriculum, teaching methods or demographics, all of which could call some data into question.

And there is another downside. Full-day kindergarten is expensive. Schools must double the number of kindergarten teachers and the number of classrooms. Nevada's schools have not been built for full-day kindergarten. Portable classrooms, which cost about $70,000 each, may not be appropriate for kindergartners, as they are smaller and not always equipped with running water and restrooms. Therefore older students' classes may be moved to the portables to allow kindergartens to use classrooms inside. The entire school is impacted.

Soon the Nevada Assembly Education Committee will consider those issues as it discusses AB 157, which would provide full-day kindergarten for all students beginning in 2008. They will meet on Monday at 3:45 p.m. in room 1214 of the Legislative Building. I'm hoping they recommend fully funding full-day kindergarten for all of Nevada's at-risk schools. For now.

The home lives of at-risk children will not change just because they are in school all day. Their families must still contend with poverty, crime and language issues. Nevertheless, full-day kindergarten is a good place to start breaking the cycle of poverty. Children's English will improve more quickly. They will gain skills and attitudes that will help them meet the increasing demands of school and society. Students will enjoy academic success from the start. When children are happy and successful in school, they will be more likely to stay in school longer.

At-risk children simply need more if we are serious about closing the achievement gap as required by No Child Left Behind and, more importantly, helping all children become successful and productive citizens.

Paula Simons, a columnist for the Edmonton Journal, wrote on March 29, 2006: "... for kids at risk, full-day kindergarten can work miracles. It can help children from homes beset by poverty and chaos get a fair start. For children who grow up without books, or with parents who can't read, extended kindergarten can help provide the basic academic and social skills they need to succeed in school."

• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues. Lorie Schaefer teaches kindergarten at Seeliger School.


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