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Why Is Kindergarten Still Half Day?

While PreK gets all the attention—and a proposed $150 billion—nearly half of America’s 5-year-olds aren’t getting a full day of kindergarten. Why boosting your kindergarten program could be the best money your district ever spent.

The way Bonnie Hackler sees it, ­universal PreK is a win-win. Hackler's two young daughters have both completed the prekindergarten program at the Mayo Demonstration School of Science and Technology in Tulsa, and Hackler strongly believes it has helped prepare the girls, both academically and socially, for elementary school.

"It's a bonus year," explains Hackler. "It gives them a leg up academ­ically because there's no time wasted in their day on procedures, and they can listen and focus because they're not worried about following rules." Children who start school at age 4 can begin learning letters, words, and numbers, as opposed to teachers having to "spend all [their] time saying, ‘Sit up ... stand in line,' " says Hackler, who, like her husband, works full time.

Hackler is not alone in her enthusiasm for universal PreK, and proponents are happy to see it's on the federal funding map, with the Obama administration proposing $75 billion in funding, with an equal state match, to increase enrollment in state programs. States have been cutting preschool budgets during the past 10 years, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said this leaves children "literally behind before they ever start." These "opportunity gaps," Duncan says, can have a negative impact on kindergarten readiness.

The PreK proposal has drawn a lot of attention, yet the majority of school districts in the U.S. don't offer full-day kindergarten—attendance is not even a requirement in most states. Fifteen states require children to attend kindergarten, while only two require they attend full-day kindergarten, according to 2008 figures from the Education Commission of the States. Additionally, 43 states require school districts to offer kindergarten programs, while only 10 states require districts to offer full-day kindergarten, according to the commission.

The Case for Universal PreK
Given a scarcity of resources, children from low-income homes should receive priority to attend a high-­quality prekindergarten program, says Lisa Guernsey, ­director of the nonpartisan New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative.

The public policy institute champions the notion that programs should be universal but should start as targeted initiatives. "We're realists, and we recognize that you need to start with those in need," Guernsey says.

There is some debate over whether PreK benefits children of all socioeconomic backgrounds. "There are prominent scholars who have publicly expressed doubts that PreK programs benefit middle-class kids,'' notes William Gormley, co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the United States and a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.

Gormley, who has extensively studied early childhood education in Oklahoma, calls the state a leader in the movement for high-quality universal PreK. The key differentiator for Oklahoma, Gormley says, has been "strong, enlightened leadership from the business community," which was convinced of the merits of providing a high-quality education to younger kids. The reasoning, says Gormley, is that "if you waited too long you might not be able to reach them as easily."

"If 90 percent [of kids] have participated in a high-quality PreK program," he adds, "that opens up intriguing possibilities in enhancing cognitive development in kindergarten or first grade."

When Gormley began his research several years ago, he focused on Tulsa, which at the time was the largest school district in Oklahoma, as well as being very diverse. He analyzed the effectiveness of its PreK program on three separate occasions, and "every time we did we discovered substantial improvements in children's cognitive development." Recently, for example, Gormley found that children who participated in school-based PreK programs are nine months ahead of their peers in pre-reading skills, seven months ahead in pre-writing, and five months ahead in pre-math skills.

"We have also found improvements in social-emotional development,'' he adds. "Specifically, children who participated in the Tulsa PreK program are more attentive and less timid than their peers."

Today, Tulsa offers PreK programs in every one of its 55 elementary schools, according to Andrew McKenzie, assistant to the superintendent for early childhood services. Full day is available to any child who needs or wants it, and the district serves approximately 3,000 4-year-olds, which is about 75 percent of the PreK students in district, McKenzie says. "We weren't waiting around for a national curriculum to tell us that academic expectations as well as the social and emotional development of our youngest students [are] very appropriate,'' McKenzie says. "Quality early-childhood classrooms focus on the whole child, using developmentally appropriate instructional strategies to build and develop academic skills and concepts in a very intentional manner."

The Case for Full-Day Kindergarten
In Oklahoma, half-day kindergarten is mandatory. The state was planning to bump it up to full day in 2012, but budget cuts prevented that, McKenzie says. However, Tulsa is once again the leader in early childhood education. The city has had "100 percent full-day kindergarten since 2005," explains McKenzie.

Many districts around the United States are still advocating for full-day kindergarten. For the second time, full-day kindergarten is up for discussion in Geneva, Illinois, a suburb about 45 minutes west of Chicago. A 2008 study recommended that the school district implement a full-day program, says Patty O'Neil, assistant superintendent of Learning and Teaching at Geneva Community Unit School District 304. But that never happened because of a lack of funding. Kindergarten is not a requirement in Illinois, and if Geneva were to start offering a full-day program, they must also offer parents the option of a half-day program. O'Neil acknowledges that "this doesn't provide for a tremendous amount of consistency when students are going to go from [different] kindergarten experiences to first grade."

She says that from the research she has seen, full-day programs are beneficial for all students, and "probably more beneficial for certain segments of the population-students who haven't had exposure to varied and diverse experiences and not much exposure to literacy in their home."

O'Neil believes the advent of the Common Core State Standards has created a greater impetus to revisit full-day kindergarten. "Obviously, every teacher at every grade level wants to believe he or she is doing their absolute best by their students, and that they have all the tools to [prepare] students," O'Neil says. "Having a full-day kindergarten program would probably be really helpful for our students."

Geneva is now forming a task force, though a definitive time frame hasn't been established. Then, of course, the district will have to figure out how to pay for full-day kindergarten. "That was a critical issue last time, and it has not diminished in importance,'' O'Neil says.

The Common Core may be a double-edged sword, however, when it comes to kindergarten. With the majority of states now implementing the standards in English/language arts and math, kindergarten teachers, especially half-day ­kindergarten teachers, "may feel more pressure to increase instruction in math and reading, leaving even less time for socializing, exploration, and other types of learning that are appropriate for young learners,'' notes Laura A. Bornfreund, a senior ­policy analyst for New America's Early Education Initiative

Bornfreund also points out that "full day" means different things in different states. The number of hours in full-day kindergarten could range from four to seven.

Despite studies indicating that lower-income children in particular tend to fare well in both full-day PreK and kindergarten, there are many who think the latter is highly beneficial to all children. "High-quality, full-day kindergarten is integral to retaining and building upon the progress made in preschool, and even more crucial for those children who were not enrolled in a quality PreK program,'' says Bornfreund. Research shows that children attending full-day kindergarten learn more and have better learning outcomes, especially disadvantaged children. "Full-day K is also an important piece of preparing children to be able to read by the end of third grade, which we know is an important predictor of whether they will graduate from high school," says Bornfreund. "A full day also allows teachers to make more time for child-centered play and hands-on activities, two important approaches to learning that many parents worry are missing in today's kindergartens."

"Light-Years Beyond"
Hackler's younger daughter, Lily, 5, finished prek, which ran from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M., at the Mayo school last spring. Hackler says her daughter has become better at counting and is a stronger writer as a result of spending full days in pre-kindergarten. With last year's PreK, "I feel like Lily is more prepared for kindergarten this year," Hackler says.

"If Lily were to have gone from a full-day PreK to a half-day kindergarten, I think she may have become bored and would certainly be less academically challenged. I also think it could make the transition to first grade more ­difficult. She's light-years beyond where she was a year ago at this time."  


The Stats

When to Start? Only 11 states mandate that children start schooling by age 5. 24 percent require 6-year-olds to be in school, while a full 16 percent don’t require mandatory schooling until age 7. 

Who Pays? 12 states allow districts to charge parents for full-day K. 11 states provide full-day kindergarten for free. 21 states require half-day K, but forbid districts from charging tuition. 

One study of an early ­childhood program showed that for each $1 spent, $8 was returned to the community.

Parental Support. When New York’s Burnt Hills–Ballston Lake Central Schools asked parents if the district should end its half-day K program, parents said:

70% Offer full-day program
18% Keep half-day program
12% Other/undecided

Source: “Full-Day Kindergarten Task Force” report, March 2013, Burnt Hills–Ballston Lake Central (NY) Schools


—Fall 2013—  

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