Saturday, January 7, 2017

Full-day kindergarten the norm

Full-day kindergarten is becoming the norm.
Full-day kindergarten classes are close to the norm in Illinois school districts, with 79 percent of 859 districts in the state offering extended-day programs in 2015. The number tripled from 1977 to 2013. But another 171 districts continued to offer half-day kindergarten.

In the 2013-14 school year, 113,990 students in 1,659 schools attended full-day kindergarten, compared to 30,870 students in 217 schools attending half-day programs, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. [See map at right highlighting counties with more than five students enrolled in half-day kindergarten in 2014.]

Growing evidence of the importance of early childhood education, and appeals made by parents, has prompted more districts to consider full-day programs. The trend is clearly for school districts to go from half-day to full-day kindergarten, with nearly 5,000 additional students served by full-day program in the most recent year.

School management organizations are among those convinced of the value and need for such programs. Investing in full-day kindergarten is one of the recommendations of the “Vision 20/20” grassroots campaign of state school management groups, which includes IASB. The campaign’s comprehensive legislative initiative on a “long-range blueprint for improving public education” in Illinois, launched in late 2014, states that “high-quality early childhood education has a significant impact on the longitudinal success of Illinois children.”

Illinois is following the national trend toward offering full-day kindergarten.

Relying on research and public input, the Vision 20/20 campaign, which also includes the Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Principals Association, Illinois Association of School Business Officials, Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, and the Superintendents’ Commission for the Study of Demographics and Diversity, recommended that the state offer incentives for expanding early learning opportunities and full day kindergarten education:

“In order to capitalize on the benefits of early childhood education, the state should continue to increase funding for the Early Childhood Block Grant and create better incentives for districts to invest in early learning. Districts have successfully offered infant, toddler, and preschool programs and partnered effectively with other early childhood providers in their communities. The state should continue efforts to support districts in that work. Additional incentives to support full-day kindergarten, parent education, and support services should also be explored.”

The trend to expand full-time kindergarten is gaining statewide support. Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school system, began offering universal full-day kindergarten in 2013 “because early education is so important to every child’s success,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote in The Washington Post.

A southwest suburban district, Mokena SD 159, reinstituted full-day kindergarten this past school year after a four-year hiatus. Space requirements were never a concern for the 1,526-student school system, but thanks to an improved property-tax revenue picture, the district has enough money to defray the cost, according to Superintendent Omar Castillo. He notes that District 159 will spend about $103,000 this school year to restore full-day kindergarten.

With the implementation of new, more stringent state educational standards, returning to full-day kindergarten was a “no brainer,” Castillo added. That’s because the new standards raised learning expectations for students, Castillo said, which ultimately is intended to result in kindergarteners who can read independently and form their own ideas about texts.

Also making the switch this academic year was School District U-46, Elgin, a suburban district of about 40,000 students that spent more than $9 million on the endeavor by building 26 new classrooms via additions at three grade schools, and by hiring 46 additional teachers. The district saw it could extend kindergarten to full day status under the current tax levy. While U46 may incur some additional costs, those should be minimized via reductions in other areas. “For example, transportation costs would be reduced because the district would no longer have to operate midday buses to take kindergartners home from the half-day program,” according to the district website.

Administrators say it is still too early to say what the academic results will be, but according to Tony Sanders, CEO of the district, “There is a recognition nationwide of the importance in investing in early childhood education -- not just kindergarten, but preschool as well.”

Yet another suburban grade school district, Arlington Heights SD 25, is considering the costs and feasibility of providing full-day kindergarten – after a district-wide survey found it was at the head of parents’ wish list.

Districts considering or making the move cite research showing that students perform better academically in the first grade after attending extended-day schooling the year before. In a landmark study that compared full-day with half-day kindergarten, researchers Jill Walston and Jerry West (2004) found students in full-day classes learned 3 percent more in reading and 2.4 percent more in math than students in half-day classes.
(The Walston and West study is available online.)

There is also some indication that full-day kindergarten may produce long-term gains, especially for low-income and minority students. In one Indiana district, for example, students in full-day kindergarten obtained significantly higher basic skills test scores in the third, fifth, and seventh grades than students who attended half-day or did not attend kindergarten at all. That finding appeared in a 2004 study conducted by the Education Commission of the States, called “Full-Day Kindergarten Programs Improve Chances of Academic Success.”

Some critics say research on long-term benefits remains inconclusive, pointing to a review of relevant studies that reached this very conclusion, a review released by the Child Trends organization in a 2013 report. According to the report, kindergartners in full-day programs were more likely to maintain good attendance, self-confidence, and the ability to work and play with others, but less likely to have a positive attitude toward school.

Those who resist the switch to full-day kindergarten suggest that many children aged five are not yet ready to attend school or learn effectively for the entire day. “Kindergarten readiness depends on social and emotional maturity; if children can self-regulate behaviors, follow the structure and schedule of a school environment and get along with others, then academic learning can more easily follow,” according to Julie K. Nelson, the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker, and professor at Utah Valley University.

Ample research shows that the youngest five-year-old children tend to lag behind their classmates. Researchers have found that older kindergartners are more likely to persist at tasks, more eager to learn, and better able to pay attention.

Another study generally refutes that claim, finding that five-year-olds clearly are ready for a longer school day, and in fact do much better in a setting that allows them to learn and explore activities in depth. With more time in the classroom, children can proceed at a more leisurely pace, according to the study, “Making the Most of Kindergarten: Present Trends and Future Issues in the Provision of Full-day Programs,” published by the National Institute for Early Education Research in March 2005 and the final report is available online.

The most common reason for not making the switch, however, is the cost of providing full-day kindergarten.  On the state level, for example, Arizona spent $21 million in 2005 to switch to full-day kindergarten statewide, bringing the total cost of providing full-day kindergarten in that state to $48 million, out of a state budget of $8 billion. On the district level, meanwhile, Palatine Township Elementary District 15 sought voter approval on November 8, 2016 to borrow $130 million to build two new schools, freeing up space in the district's 15 elementary schools to accommodate roughly 1,400 students in full-day kindergarten classrooms. Voters rejected the plan, however, by a count of 13,741 yes to 33,055 no.

While the cost argument can’t be completely refuted, a study by the Economic Policy Institute found investment in quality early childhood programs generate returns of 3-to-1 or more in value, meaning that every $1 spent brings $3 in educational benefits.

Meanwhile, academic gains provide an essential “bridge” between pre-K experiences and first grade. (View the research report on the 3-to-1 return online; and examine the research about the “bridge to first grade” benefits online as well.)

Support also comes from classroom teachers, who testify that full-day kindergarten programs allow them more time to get to know the children in their classroom and identify and address individual learning challenges early. This finding comes from a 2004 Indiana study called “The Effects of Full Day Versus Half Day Kindergarten.”

Despite the preponderance of evidence, 37 states, including Illinois, only require schools to offer half-day kindergarten, while 13 states and the District of Columbia mandate the full day. Meanwhile, seventeen states do not require school districts to offer kindergarten at all, and 35 states, including Illinois, do not require kindergarten attendance. (These and other state comparisons are contained in a 2016 statistical report from the Education Commission of the States.)

Even local districts that don’t offer full-day kindergarten continue to support it. A task force at Geneva School District 304 reviewed the district’s needs in 2008 and developed several options for a full-day kindergarten program. “The research seems to indicate, overwhelmingly, that the advantages of having an all-day kindergarten program outweigh the disadvantages,” the final study said. “However, each state and each individual school district must, ultimately, make that decision for its own schools and students.” 

Projected district costs (2009 estimates in Education Fund or Operations and Maintenance Funds) included:

•    12 kindergarten teachers @ $55,000, or $660,000 total
•    12 kindergarten assistants @ $15,000, or $180,000 total
•    New classrooms @ $276,000 per classroom
•    Furnishing and equipping @ $12,000 per classroom

Because of the extra costs, the task force recommended an interim plan, aimed at helping at-risk students. It called for five additional staff members and offering morning and afternoon kindergarten classes, with at-risk students having the option of attending both the morning and afternoon classes. Board members held back from implementing the switch in 2008, citing space and cost constraints. But in February 2014, the board agreed to aggressively pursue offering the option of full-day kindergarten. The district instituted the recommendation last year. Parents who prefer their children attend for a half-day now have the option to pick them up halfway through the day.

The economic factors are also complicated by the source of funding. Palos Heights District 128, for example, supports all-day kindergarten but can’t afford it, according to Superintendent Kathleen Casey. Even though District 128 is classified as a “property-rich” district, it also operates under a property tax cap, which enforces limiting district revenue, she explained to the Daily Southtown in a March 6, 2015 article. The district, with 668 students, estimates the cost of a full-day kindergarten program at $300,000 per year.

“Until educational funding becomes a priority for our state, there is little possibility we will be able to provide a tuition-free program," Casey stated.

Other considerations involved in the switch to full-day kindergarten involve non-revenue issues, such as: what hours of the day are acceptable? Should the program schedule be the same throughout the school year or phased in? What is the level of community support? And what are the additional training needs?

Illinois has recently established new standards for schools, including Kindergarten, and, according to State Superintendent Tony Smith, “Research has shown that children who attended all-day kindergarten score higher on standardized tests, have fewer grade retentions, and fewer Chapter I placements.”

Smith notes that Illinois standards alignment summaries for Kindergarten readiness are available for download on the state’s Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) website.