Holding up stiff cardboard figures, Mariam Kupalian runs her kindergartners through a quick review of shapes such as the hexagon and the trapezoid. The children, seated at desks, raise their hands when their teacher asks if anyone can think of a shape with no sides.
She then asks individual students in her class at Cheremoya Elementary School to think of patterns using the names of shapes. “Square, circle, triangle,” 5-year-old Blaize Smith offers. Next, the group moves on to a study of the numbers 15 and 16 and the terms “one more” and “one less.”
“I’m working on getting them to use their math vocabulary,” explains Kupalian, who’s been teaching kindergarten for five years. The extended math lesson is just the kind she would not have had time for in the 2003-04 school year, when kindergarten classes ran a little more than three hours. But this past year, her Hollywood school was among the 173 in the Los Angeles Unified School District offering full-day kindergarten; the remaining 280 in the nation’s second-largest district will follow during the next three years.
“Unfortunately, in a half-day program, you have little time for [anything] beyond the basics,” says James Morris, an LAUSD assistant superintendent for instructional support services. “We really believe this is the key to preventing the achievement gap.”
Los Angeles is so far the biggest but just the latest system to embrace full-day kindergarten, which has been championed by schools nationwide for the extra time it affords to heighten skills and delve more deeply into lessons. Nine states now require districts to offer it, and the governors of Arizona, Indiana, and Massachusetts all have placed daylong programs at the top of their legislative agendas, even as some observers voice concern about the class’s growing focus on academics and the added burden on teachers.
Full-day kindergarten teachers say they enjoy a stronger connection with students thanks to more one-on-one and small-group time, more opportunities to get to know parents, and more time to tailor instruction to meet specific needs. “I used to feel really awful because I wouldn’t have time to read a book. Now, I read three or four a day,” says Bronwyn Rubenstein, an educator at Phoenix’s Arrowhead Elementary School in the 34,000-student Paradise Valley Unified School District, which added all-day classes in fall 2004.
“I feel like we’ve built an extraordinary community,” Rubenstein says of her class of 25 children. “And when they go into 1st grade next year, it will be easier. They’ll know the lunchroom routine. They will have already been to music.”
All-day programs don’t always go so melodiously for teachers, however—particularly when they’ve never taught before, as is now more often the case. In Rubenstein’s district, enrollment has increased, pushing more teachers who have never taught kindergarten into classes that are suddenly twice as long. Officials have responded by providing crash-course kindergarten “academies” and veteran primary-grade mentors.
“If you don’t offer them training and support, it’s going to be a very tough year for them,” Rubenstein says.
Union officials say such support also has to include more money. Mike Dreebin, the elementary vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, says funding levels in his district haven’t caught up with the extension of instructional time. Some no longer have classroom assistants, and he says there aren’t enough staff members now to supervise the extra children on the playground—a task the union contract prohibits teachers from doing.
Moreover, while anecdotal evidence of daylong kindergarten’s benefits for children isn’t hard to find, few formalstudies have been conducted, according to a 2002 review of the research by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon. And some experts on early childhood education have expressed concern about whether moving to all-day kindergarten is just a response to the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and an attempt to fill children’s days with more academic work.
“People ask, ‘Are we going to be putting our kids behind more desks and making them take more tests?’ ” says Kristie Kauerz, early learning program director at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. Full-day programs can still be developmentally appropriate.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Beyond the Basics