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full day kindergarten
Photograph by Dave Parker

On a recent June morning, 6-year-olds Ethan Lee and Adrian D’Souza were hunched over a book about sharks in their kindergarten classroom at James Madison Primary School in Edison, N.J. Ethan read the titles of the book’s chapters to Adrian. Scattered around the room, other pairs of children sat shoulder-to-shoulder at low tables, murmuring over their books. Ella Filson, their teacher, and Debbie Gibilisco, a co-teacher who helps with special-education students, hovered nearby, occasionally pulling up a tiny chair to listen in.

“Shark attacks!” Adrian piped up when Ethan asked him which chapter he would prefer. Ethan dutifully turned to page 28 and began reading, breezing through words like “surfboard” and pausing only briefly to sound out the word “tugged.”

Like most kindergarteners, Ethan couldn’t read any words at the beginning of the year. But after a year of daily reading and writing workshops in his full-day kindergarten class, Ethan now reads whole books, and even writes his own.

Full-day kindergarten has spread rapidly in recent years as part of national efforts to increase the rigor of elementary school, raise tests scores and increase learning in later grades. Next year, kindergartners at James Madison may not advance so quickly, however: The workshops will have to switch to every other day, as the district cuts full-day kindergarten to half day in the midst of New Jersey’s $11 billion budget crisis.

Across the country, other school districts are also gutting kindergarten programs as they try to balance school budgets amid fiscal crises. Arizona has eliminated its state funding for full-day kindergarten. Districts in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania also are considering cuts. Chicago was planning to end its full-day program until the state legislature gave the school district a last-minute budget reprieve.

Adopting the Common Core

The kindergarten cuts come just as many states are adopting new Common Core State Standards, which include 93 items that kindergartners are expected to master. The items, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, range from counting to 100 to identifying the difference between a book’s author and its illustrator.

Full-day kindergarten is particularly vulnerable to cuts in hard times, however: Only 12 states require schools to offer it, according to Kristie Kauerz, director of PreK-3rd Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In Arizona, the cuts in state aid for all-day programs mean most districts will eliminate them. Elsewhere, major cuts in aid to school districts are forcing local school boards to fire large swaths of their teaching force, and switching from six to three hours of kindergarten is an easy way to eliminate teaching positions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in his push for a $10 billion bill to save teachers’ jobs, has said that potential layoffs are putting all-day kindergarten on the line, “even though all research shows that students benefit from extra instruction.”

Full-Day vs. Half-Day

Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied the benefits of full-day versus half-day kindergarten. In a 2008 report, she found significant gains in both reading and math among students who attended a full day of kindergarten compared to their half-day counterparts.

“It’s too bad to see this retrenchment,” Votruba-Drzal said. “All kids are benefiting from it, and they’re benefiting from it equally, so it’s a shame across the board.”

Votruba-Drzal’s study and others like it show that the gains tended to level off around third grade, but she says that’s because children in full-day kindergarten classes are often more disadvantaged at home. She says half-day students, who are more likely to be white and affluent, are able to catch up later in elementary school.

Edison is a mostly upper-middle class community, but the town is becoming more ethnically diverse. In its schools, the number of children eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches has increased by 65 percent in the past decade – from about 1,300 students to nearly 2,200. At James Madison, only 11 percent of students speak English as a first language at home.

The town’s cutbacks mean that kindergarten will go from six hours a day, including lunch and recess, to two and half. The principal at James Madison, Regina Foxx, says that at least 30 minutes a day will be spent taking off coats and getting children ready to leave at the end of the day – never a simple process for a room of 20 six-year-olds – meaning actual instructional time will be more like two hours.

An ‘Assault on Our Ability’

“It’s such an assault on our ability to get our children where we need to get them,” said Foxx. “For children at risk, we’re losing a year.”

Parents are also worried, and not just about academics. Ethan’s mother, Katherine Lee, says she is concerned “they won’t learn as much,” but also says the changes will hurt parents who depend on school for childcare while they work. “They are deciding not to send their kids to [public] school,” she said.

James Madison had only recently introduced the reading and writing workshops. Mrs. Filson, a veteran kindergarten teacher, said she’s been “blown away” by the results. “Because of the time that they’re exposed, I have much higher reading levels at the end of this year,” she said.

Along with moving the workshops to every other day, other subjects will also be trimmed from the daily schedule that hangs on Mrs. Filson’s classroom wall. Science and social studies will go from every day to only one day a week. Time spent on games and play at the end of the day will be reduced and transformed into a more structured “choice workshop.” Recess, also known as literacy enrichment at James Madison and usually the time when children meet with a music teacher, will be cut. So will “literacy center,” which teachers have used for working on words and sounds.

Learning Losses

District officials already are changing the first- and second-grade curriculum to account for the learning losses they anticipate because of the cutback in kindergarten time. Instead of planning first- and second-grade lessons for students who have mastered reading books and writing complete sentences, curriculum specialists are coming up with easier lessons for students who have only been “exposed” to those skills.

Thirty years ago, only a quarter of children were enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs. That percentage has grown nationally, due in part to research showing significant academic gains by students who had participated in them. Now, two-thirds of children in kindergarten are enrolled for an entire day. In New Jersey, the number of full-day kindergarten programs has increased from 325 to 366 during the past five years and they now outnumber half-day programs 2-to-1. The state is also working on guidelines to help districts improve kindergarten after a 2008 study found that the quality of many programs serving the poorest districts was mediocre or worse.

“We really want to support kindergarten programs,” said Ellen Wolock, who directs early childhood education for the New Jersey Department of Education. “We understand how important they are – just as important as pre-school.”

Keith Gayler, the director of standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the Common Core State Standards, which New Jersey adopted last month, are meant to be applied in either half-day or full-day classes. As time in kindergarten is cut, many experts and educators fear that the focus on math and literacy in the standards could lead states and teachers to ignore other fundamental areas, like social-emotional development. Ed Miller, a senior researcher at the Alliance for Childhood, worries that “more and more of the time in kindergarten classes is going to be drilling kids for those tests.”

Learning Without Drilling

In Mrs. Filson’s kindergarten class in Edison, there is no drilling. Math and reading are incorporated into what seem like – at least to the children – fun and games. During an afternoon math session, the students practiced addition and subtraction with games involving frogs and ladybugs. They wrote their equations in crayon on construction paper, a skill not required until first grade in the new common standards.

Many of the children can do things that more closely match expectations for first and second grade. All of the students produced dozens of books over the course of the year, and like several of her classmates, Manushri Bapat, 6, reported that “writing stories” was her favorite subject. One of Manushri’s books explained how to make a rainbow (start by drawing an arch with a red crayon). In another, complete with vivid illustrations and a narrative arc, she told the traumatic story of burning herself with hot water and traveling by helicopter to the hospital.

On the last full day of kindergarten this June, Mrs. Filson gathered her class on the rug at the end of the day to read a final book. The story was about a girl starting kindergarten, accompanied by her imaginary friend. Mrs. Filson held up the book as she turned the pages, and her class occasionally read sentences along with her in unison.“So many great books we didn’t have time to read this year,” she sighed, before closing the book and directing the children to gather their backpacks. Then they filed out, ready for first grade.

A version of this article also appeared on July 23, 2010 here on NJ Spotlight, a public affairs news site in New Jersey. NJ Spotlight is funded by the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.

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