Parents, Schools Are Learning to Like Full-Day Kindergarten
Los Angeles Times
December 29, 2003

By Cara Mia DiMassa

When Maria Covarrubias talks about the benefits of full-day kindergarten, she speaks from experience. Three of her children
attended half-day programs at Daniel Webster Elementary School in Pasadena. Now, her youngest, Matthew, is enrolled in a pilot full-day kindergarten class there.

Gone are the harried lunch hours used for shuttling children from school to an afternoon baby-sitter. Matthew spends 6 1/2 hours in class each day, and his mother, an administrative assistant at a Monrovia CPA firm, marvels at not being a midday chauffeur and not spending $100 a week on child care. "I really enjoy it," she said.

But more important, she has watched her son blossom academically, an unexpected result of the longer program, she said.

"He goes a little further than I think the girls did," Covarrubias said. "He has the clearest handwriting. You just have to see it. I think because they write a lot more, that helps him. I think that's what it is."

Kindergarten - that bastion of ABCs, 123s and the three-hour school day - is going full-time. Spurred by demographic, academic and sometimes economic factors, states and local school districts are embracing full-day kindergarten at a rapid rate.

In 1969, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, most American kindergartners attended shortened, usually half-day programs. Only 11% were in programs considered full-day - defined as more than four hours but usually closer to six. By 2000, the percentage enrolled in full-day programs had grown to 60%.

The Pasadena school board voted in October for all 24 of its elementary schools to provide full-day kindergarten next fall - though some pilot programs have already begun. Thirty-three other California districts, including Fresno, Paramount, Las Virgenes and Moorpark, are trying out pilot full-day programs. And a $3.8-billion bond that will go before Los Angeles voters in March includes $100 million to build the facilities necessary for Los Angeles Unified schools to offer full-day kindergarten as soon as possible.

Currently, all 3,013 of Los Angeles Unified's kindergarten classes are half-day. And that, said Los Angeles school board member David Tokofsky, "has got to be up there in terms of being one of the most lame public policies out there."

Tokofsky, whose oldest daughter is enrolled in a half-day program at Eagle Rock Elementary School, said that full-day kindergarten appeals to both ends of the economic spectrum: families who have the means for private school but might be encouraged to enroll, and stay, in public schools; and working parents, who would be better able to take full-time jobs if their children were occupied all day long.

Tokofsky introduced a motion earlier this month that calls on the district to commit itself to full-day kindergarten, regardless of whether the March bond measure succeeds. Tokofsky said the cost of the switch remains under study but that he expects it to be minimal for costs beyond construction of new facilities. The school board is expected to consider the plan next month.

Nationwide, school districts are realizing that offering full-day kindergarten may be their best bet to attract the children of working parents, to fast-track children with limited English skills toward English literacy and to keep students competitive. And they hope that offering the full-day program eventually will bring more enrollment revenues from their states.

The Maryland Legislature voted last year to make all of its kindergartens full-day by 2007. New Mexico has almost completed a five-year plan for all districts statewide to offer it.

"Where it's been implemented, we are getting such favorable results," said Karen Ehlert, New Mexico's full-day kindergarten coordinator. "As kids move into first grade, teachers are astonished at how much the kindergartners can do in comparison to what they could do when there were half-day kindergartens."

Although six states, including New Mexico, offer districts a financial incentive for switching from half- to full-day kindergarten, California makes no such distinction. In fact, under California law, kindergarten attendance is not even mandatory. But because a major part of school funding is based on the number of students at a school on any given day, any boost in enrollment would increase the amount of money that a California district receives.

An internal Los Angeles Unified School District memo prepared earlier this year by Supt. Roy Romer pointed out that 5,000 fewer students are enrolled in district kindergartens than in first grade. With full-day kindergarten, that gap, said the memo, "would be expected to significantly decrease."

But the most compelling reason for making the switch, say educators, is academic. Full-day kindergarten gives students, especially those considered at-risk, more time in a structured setting and a better introduction to English literacy, said Ellen Junn, a dean in the College of Human Development and Community Service at Cal State Fullerton and the president of the California Assn. for the Education of Young Children.

Recent studies in Maryland and elsewhere have shown that children who attend full-day kindergarten are better prepared for first grade than their half-day counterparts and demonstrate a greater mastery of math, reading and general learning skills.

Casondra Johnson has noticed similar gains among the 20 students in the all-day kindergarten class she teaches at Webster Elementary, as part of Pasadena's pilot program to extend the day.

Johnson, who is in her ninth year as a teacher at the school, posted a neatly written chart inside her classroom, dividing the school day into half- and quarter-hour segments. The schedule, which runs from 7:50 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., includes the basics - reading, math and a nap - as well as storytelling, art and physical education.

"We are getting to cover so much more," Johnson said. "Having all-day kindergarten, I can get my core things done before lunchtime. After lunch, I can focus on English language development, instead of trying to fit it into math. I can focus on art, science, the things we didn't get to do anymore. Art is a big thing. I know [half-day] kindergarten teachers miss it."

Johnson said she's noticed differences in her students. They are, she says, always a bit exhausted or a bit hyper by day's end - despite the requisite half-hour afternoon nap.

But the students also seem to be picking up concepts more quickly, and the kindergartners who began the school year with what she characterized as "absolutely limited English skills" are understanding and speaking English better than she expected.

Martha Trevino Powell, the principal of Aldama Elementary School in the L.A. district, said she hopes for such a switch. Many of the students who start kindergarten at her school, she said, have participated in full-day preschool programs, often through Head Start. "They are not the students of years back. They are so mature when we get them."

Right now, Powell said, teachers are limited by what they can teach in the short school day.

At Aldama, in Highland Park, a virtual kindergarten parade plays out each weekday as parents drop off and pick up their children with the precision timing of a drill team. At precisely 11:05 a.m., a door along the sidewalk opens, welcoming students to the 3-hour, 20-minute afternoon session.

A few minutes later, the door swings open again, releasing a group of morning students, their homework assignments for the next day hanging in laminated pouches around their necks.

Rebecca Martinez, 38, had just dropped her 5-year-old son off at Aldama for the afternoon session when she learned about the district's plans to move to full-day kindergarten. She did not hesitate to offer her opinion on the plan. "That would be a good idea," she said. Her son Job, 5, would get to spend more time in class and learn more, she said.

A move to full-day kindergarten also would allow Martinez, the mother of five sons from 5 to 15 years old, the possibility of going back to work. Right now, she said, she spends a good portion of her day shuttling her children to and from school. "I can't do a lot. Not in the morning, or in the afternoon. It would be better if they stayed the whole day."

So far, say education experts, the major obstacles to moving to full-day kindergarten have been cost and space. But many districts in California that are making the move to full-day kindergarten say that they have been able to work around those concerns, because many already pay kindergarten teachers to be at school all day and because recent declines in school enrollment have freed up extra classrooms.

In districts such as Pasadena and Los Angeles, typically, two kindergarten teachers share a classroom, with one teaching a morning half-day class, the other the afternoon, and the teachers helping each other as need be. Moving to full-day would put one teacher in each classroom, overseeing a class that is smaller. Full-day classes tend to be near the state-recommended 20-1 ratio; half-day classes, with two teachers present, often hover above 25 to 1.

That shift makes some teachers worry about what it would be like to spend all day in the classroom without the help of another person to relieve them. "You have 20 children, and you need somebody," said Ani Simonian, one of two teachers still teaching half-day classes at Webster. "If you want to divide into groups, you want an adult to be watching that group. But everything hinges on money."

For Covarrubias and her family, the switch to full-day kindergarten has had a major effect. On a recent school day, she arrived at Matthew's classroom to pick him up early. She had planned it as a treat, she said; Matthew's response made a mother's heart sing. "He said, "Mom, I want to stay at school.' "