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NASHUA, N.H. — “Fact or opinion?” teacher Patricia Lemoine asked her kindergartners on a blustery April morning: “Ms. Lemoine has a rug in her classroom.”
“Fact!” shouted her 5- and 6-year-old students, who sat on the rug in question. Whether or not it’s the best rug in the whole school, they ceded, was a matter of opinion.
Lemoine, who teaches at Dr. Norman W. Crisp Elementary School in the small city of Nashua, New Hampshire, nodded. A fact, she told her students, is “true, true, true, and we can prove it.”
It’s also a fact — true, true, true, and we can prove it — that full-day kindergarten classes like Lemoine’s help kids do better in early elementary school, researchers say. But state policy has been slow to catch up with this point.
Only 14 states and Washington, D.C., require districts to offer full-day kindergarten, according to kindergarten policy data collected by the Education Commission of the States, a national think tank. And even though most states require school districts to offer at least half-day kindergarten, only 17 states and the District of Columbia mandate that children attend it. Of those, two offer a waiver to children who are assessed as ready to start first grade.
Early learning advocates and politicians have spent a lot of time in the past five years talking about preschool. Former President Barack Obama made preschool a key part of his education agenda during his eight years in office. Spending on state-funded preschool programs for 4-year-olds has risen in both red and blue states, especially since 2008.
But for the benefits of preschool to be sustained, experts argue, children must continue to receive a high-quality early elementary education. Full-day kindergarten, which has been shown to boost academic gains for students well into elementary school, could be critical.
“The opportunity for full-day K should be available for all,” said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Cooper is the lead author of a 2010 review of all the research examining the impact of full-day kindergarten, which found that children who attended for a full day had better academic outcomes the following year, more self-confidence, and were better at playing with others.
In the 36 states that don’t require schools to offer full-day kindergarten, many districts have gone ahead with it anyway, using a combination of federal funding, available state dollars and parent-paid tuition to cover the cost of the approximately 540 extra hours of instruction time each school year.
New Hampshire is the latest state to approve legislation to fund full-day kindergarten in districts that want it. However, districts here are not required to offer kindergarten at all, nor are children mandated to attend it. The new funding doesn’t kick in until 2019, but many New Hampshire school leaders aren’t waiting until then to offer full-day programs.
In Nashua, full-day kindergarten has long been provided in schools that serve a majority low-income population, but 2017-18 is the first school year full-day has been available at all 12 district elementary schools.
“It feels good to be able to offer parents what they’ve been asking for for years,” said Kelley Paradis, principal of Main Dunstable Elementary School in Nashua. Paradis, whose school offered full-day kindergarten for the first time in the 2017-18 school year, said that by April 2018, every class for the 2018-19 school year was full and the school already had a waiting list.
During the summer of 2017, Paradis said, she and Main Dunstable’s three kindergarten teachers focused on the logistics of doubling their students’ time in school. How would the kids behave in the new classroom? How would they find the bathrooms? Where would the kindergartners sit at lunch? How would teachers handle dismissing kindergartners at the same time as all the older kids? But those things all fell into place with some extra planning and “what we learned about were the unanticipated social-emotional benefits,” Paradis said.
Simple things like socializing during lunch and participating in “specialty classes” like art and music have made the kindergartners more comfortable in their building and with each other, the school’s teachers said. Friendships have blossomed, kids have received more individual attention each day and the academic gains at this middle-class school have been significant, they said.
“The best thing has been being able to teach every subject every day,” said Wendy Lundquist, who has taught kindergarten for 19 years. During previous school years, she said, she was only able to get to science or social studies on any given day, not both.
“My kids who are struggling are doing better,” said Mary Plouffe, who began teaching 15 years ago. They have extra hours to practice and more teacher support, they are “more motivated” and are improving more quickly, Plouffe said. “We should have done this years ago.”
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In a bit of a twist for an initiative usually vaunted for its ability to boost reading and math scores, Nashua teachers said they were pleased to be spending much of the extra time offered in their full-day programs on the things kindergarten used to be famous for: art, free play and recess, among other not-strictly-academic activities.
It’s unclear if this anecdotal finding is part of a trend. Research from 2016 indicates that children spent a smaller percentage of their kindergarten day on activities like art, music and theater in 2010 than they did in 1998, according to a study led by Daphna Bassok of the University of Virginia and published in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed education research journal. The pattern of how kids spent their days held true for both full-day and half-day programs, according to the report.
After a morning filled with reading picture books, learning sight words, practicing addition, making weather graphs, counting backwards and singing songs, a class of Main Dunstable kindergartners stood in a circle in the school’s music room. They grasped each other’s hands and raised them high, making a series of spaces for a classmate to weave in and out of as they sang: “Bluebird, bluebird, in and out my window!”
When they switched to the next verse, the “bluebird” traded spots with another classmate and the dance continued.
“It’s fun,” said Hadassa Aguiar, 6, when asked what she liked about kindergarten. “I like play time every day. I know everybody. I can read a whole entire book.”
Since children from low-income families are more likely to be unprepared to do well in school when they show up on the first day of kindergarten, time to catch up to their peers is important. The extra time is also important for children who speak a language other than English at home and for students with learning disabilities.
“What full-day kindergarten does is push up the starting point,” says Cooper, the Duke professor. That means children who enter kindergarten behind the curve can potentially make enough progress to start first grade on par with wealthier classmates, he explains.
The first-grade teachers at Dr. Norman Crisp Elementary in Nashua are used to getting students who have spent a year in full-day kindergarten. They love it. And they can tell immediately when one of their students hasn’t been in kindergarten at all.
“By the end of the first day, I realize, ‘Oh, I have six who have not been to kindergarten,’” said Shauna DeRosa, who has taught for eight years.
“If they’re coming out of kindergarten, even if they’re struggling, they’ve had some support,” said Kendra Raymond, who has taught for 10 years. It’s a big help to their progress in first grade that students arrive in her classroom already connected to reading specialists or special education staff, she said.
New Hampshire had considered paying for full-day kindergarten in the past. The most recent failed effort lost on a party-line vote in 2015, with Republicans voting against. Then, in the months before he was elected in 2016, Republican Governor Chris Sununu came out in favor of full-day kindergarten and, within the year, had signed a law to cover the new cost with money from the state’s lottery system.
In 2019, New Hampshire will provide interested districts with about $2,900 per full-day kindergartner, more than is offered for half-day kindergartners, but just two thirds of what is offered for first- through 12th-grade students. By 2020, the state will raise kindergarten funding to match that provided to the higher grades. The full amount is still just about a third of the per pupil cost for a year of education, according to reporting from Jason Moon of New Hampshire Public Radio. The rest comes from local taxes.
Before the new law was signed, a smaller percentage of kids attended full-day kindergarten in New Hampshire than in almost any other state, reported Moon, who has followed the issue carefully since the measure was first introduced in the state legislature. In March, Moon called several districts that weren’t offering full-day kindergarten and found that the new funding from the state would not sway them to start offering it.
Despite his support for offering full-day kindergarten as a matter public policy, Cooper said attending six hours of school may not be appropriate for some 5-year-olds. “Parents and educators should consider characteristics of the child in addition to potential effects on achievement,” he said. “That they’re ready cognitively doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready emotionally.”
Back in Lemoine’s kindergarten classroom, it was 2 p.m. and school had been in session for nearly six hours. Justin Pichardo-Morban, 6, was painting “things about spring” with some well-used watercolors. Jaliyah Carrion, 5, was sitting next to him drawing trees. Jeraliz Rosario, 5, was “drawing spring” too.
All three children looked happy and energetic as they added bright greens and yellows to their sopping wet paintings. In fact, no one in the room, not the kids playing the math-based card game, or the ones building cities out of Legos, looked tired.
If anything, said Leianny Menendez, 6, kindergarten might be just a bit too easy. “I like it,” she said, “but I wish I could be in fourth grade so I could learn even harder things.”
This story about kindergarten was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.