An all-day affair

They may be pint-sized, but now kindergartners have full days of learning at school, thanks to school district and Oregon Department of Education efforts to establish all-day kindergarten.

October 12, 2005

By 8:15 a.m., the kindergartners in Monica von Lubken’s class at May Street Elementary have already counted how many days of school they’ve had so far and done some stretching exercises to prepare for the day.

“Find those brain buttons,” von Lubken says as the students finish stretching and gather on a mat on the floor. “Let your brain know you’re at school.” The next 45 minutes will be spent on literacy, that most vital of building blocks in a child’s education. Von Lubken will lead the students through the alphabet, calling a different child up to the board every few letters so each can have their turn with the “magic reading wand” used to point to each letter. The students will play a game to match lowercase letters with their uppercase “parents,” and they’ll read a story together and discuss its rhyming words.

For the eager kindergartners, it’s all mostly fun and games. But von Lubken, who has been teaching kindergarten for nearly a decade, knows it’s much more than that. Spending all that unhurried time solely on literacy is a new-found luxury for her — one that could benefit these students for the rest of their lives.

May Street and all elementary schools in Hood River County have full-day kindergarten for the first time this year. (Parkdale, Mid-Valley and Pine Grove schools started full-day kindergarten as a pilot program last year.) Up until now, kindergartners have attended school for half-days only – roughly two and a half hours a day. Now kindergartners district-wide attend school six hours a day, five days a week, just like their older peers.

Full-day kindergarten is a trend that’s gathering speed nationwide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1979 only 25 percent of all kindergartners in the United States were enrolled in full-day programs. By 2000, that number had leaped to 60 percent and last year hit more than 65 percent.

In Oregon, State School Superintendent Susan Castillo has made establishing full-day kindergarten state-wide a priority. The number of students around the state in full-day kindergarten rose from 3,700 in 2003-04 to more than 6,000 in 2004-05.

“In 2003, Castillo made this one of the state’s priorities,” said Gene Evans, communications director for the Oregon Department of Education. “She’s called for schools doing half-day kindergarten to try and figure out a way to increase to full-day.”

Many factors involving both family dynamics and educational goals have contributed to the increase in full-day kindergarten programs. For one, a majority of today’s kindergartners have already had at least one and often two years of preschool by the time they arrive at elementary school. Where once kindergarten served as the entry point for a child’s formal education, it’s now often merely a continuation of that process.

The steady rise in the number of working mothers also has contributed to the push for full-day kindergarten. To stabilize children’s schedules, many parents favor full-day kindergarten because it reduces the number of disruptions and transitions children experience in a day.

State and national educational goals and pressures from the federal government to show students’ yearly gains in reading and math have also contributed to the push for full-day kindergarten.

All of these factors played a role in Hood River County School District officials’ decision to implement full-day kindergarten district-wide this year.

“We would’ve liked to have been able to afford full-day kindergarten in all schools last year, but we didn’t have the resources to do it,” said Marcia LaDuke, assistant superintendent of the Hood River County School District. Parkdale, Mid-Valley and Pine Grove schools qualified for additional funding under Title 1A (determined by the number of students taking part in the free- and reduced-lunch program), which the district used to pilot full-day kindergarten in those schools last year.

Those schools had so much success with the program that district officials looked for a way to fund it district-wide this year.

“When we looked at add-backs for this year, we put a priority on making full-day kindergarten in all schools,” LaDuke said.

Pat Echanis, principal at Parkdale Elementary, is a long-time advocate of full-day kindergarten and was very pleased with last year’s inaugural program at the school.

“I really saw a remarkable difference in kids who were here last year for a full-day for the first time,” Echanis said. He was especially pleased with “how far they came with their language skills in a year.”

“I think those benefits are really going to pay off in the future as far as academic achievement,” he said. Echanis said the first grade teachers have had to “make some adjustments” because they’re getting kids who are “more advanced.”

“I think we made a great decision in offering full-day kindergarten to all our kids in the district,” he said.

Monica von Lubken agrees.

“I have time to do everything consistently this year,” she said. “There are so many pieces that go into being a reader and a writer. I used to have to pick and choose. Now I have time to focus on all the pieces.” Von Lubken says she spends double the amount of time on literacy than she has in the past, and spends time on math every day.

“Before I had to share math time with science, specialists (PE, music, library), violence prevention programs – all those things were competing for slots,” she said.

“It’s also given us time to offer the most developmentally-appropriate kindergarten we’ve been able to do in years,” von Lubken said. “With No Child Left Behind and other restraints, this is the first time I’ve been able to give age-appropriate activities.”

Von Lubken built in a quiet time with lights off after lunch in case her kindergartners needed a nap.

“After the first few days, I realized no one was falling asleep,” she said. “We turned it into a time to read a chapter book. They all bring teddy bears and blankets and sit on the floor, and I read. It’s very unusual for kindergartners to get to read a chapter book.”

Hood River resident and City Councilor Paul Blackburn’s youngest daughter, Rosalie, is in von Lubken’s class. His older daughter, Althea, attended half-day kindergarten at May Street. He’s hesitant to compare the experiences of his daughters; the mere fact that Rosalie grew up with an older sibling made the sisters’ early life experiences vastly different.

But Blackburn is a strong proponent of full-day kindergarten and was pleased when he learned May Street would offer it this year.

“From a public policy perspective, full-day kindergarten is the greatest thing,” Blackburn said. He said he’s careful to tune in to Rosalie when he picks her up after school – “she may need a long nap when she gets home, or maybe she’ll be ready to go.”

But from the very first day of school, he says, Rosalie has loved it.

“The first day we’re walking home from school,” Blackburn recalled. “I’m thinking, okay, give me something. And Rosalie says, ‘Mrs. von Lubken is so nice.’ Well, there’s something!”

Full-day kindergarten will be a permanent part of Hood River County schools – as long as funding allows.

“Every year we have to take a look at the decisions that are made, and we have to prioritize the decisions,” LaDuke said. “If we continue to have funding, I’m sure it will be a priority. If we have to make substantial cuts again, we’ll have to take a look at what our priorities would be.”

If the Oregon Department of Education has its way, full-day kindergarten won’t be left up to districts but will become mandated by the legislature.

“It’s one of those things everyone understands – full-day kindergarten is a good thing,” Gene Evans said. He said it will cost an estimated $40 million to implement full-day kindergarten state-wide.

“We’ll have to figure out a way to pay for it,” he said. “But it’s an investment that pays off in so many ways.”

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