The Los Angeles school board voted unanimously last week to start a full-day kindergarten program. Its district will join others around the country that have expanded such programs in recent years to a full day even though the laws in their states don’t require it.
Full-day kindergarten classes in many schools in the 728,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, are likely to begin next fall.
Based on the classroom and portable space already available, projections show that more than 150 of the district’s 430 elementary schools are ready to switch from morning and afternoon half-day programs to a full-day kindergarten schedule.
But David Tokofsky, the board member who sponsored the proposal, said he would like to see a more gradual rollout of the program. That might mean as few as 50 of the lowest-performing schools across the district would start the full-day sessions in the 2004-05 school year, with more joining them over the next four years.
“We’ve moved ahead on many reforms, but one thing that hasn’t moved ahead is full-day kindergarten,” Mr. Tokofsky said during the Feb. 10 board meeting in which the vote took place. “This is perhaps the most powerful thing we can do.”
However, the four-year plan depends largely on whether LAUSD voters on March 2 pass Measure R—a $3.8 billion school construction bond that includes $100 million to help build additional classrooms for full-day kindergarten. In fact, a few of the seven board members suggested waiting until after that vote to decide on the expanded kindergarten program.
But district Superintendent Roy Romer said it was still important to make a commitment to starting full- day kindergarten, with or without passage of the bond.
“This is very difficult to do without R, but it’s the right policy,” he said, adding that if the bond fails, the district will have to adjust its strategy and timetable for implementation.
Mr. Tokofsky expects the board’s vote to serve as a catalyst for California, where only nine districts have obtained waivers from the state education department to offer full-day programs. And he said he hopes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will support statewide legislation to require full-day kindergarten.
“‘Kindergarten Cop’ is a better role for him to play than ‘Total Recall,’” Mr. Tokofsky joked, in reference to two movies the governor was in before entering politics last year.
As it is, only nine states require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten, according to a new database on kindergarten statutes created by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
Early-childhood experts say that kindergarten-age children are capable of adjusting to a full school day, and that many already move from their half-day kindergarten classrooms to child-care programs to finish the day while their parents are working. They point out that full-day programs minimize the number of transitions that children need to make during the day.
The academic benefits are also clear, argued Deborah Stipek, the dean of education at Stanford University, during a Jan. 29 LAUSD board meeting in which Mr. Tokofsky’s motion was first discussed.
She presented data showing that middle-class children in preschool outperform disadvantaged children in kindergarten on tests of vocabulary, memory of numbers, and other basic skills.
“That big gap won’t completely be eliminated by moving from a half to a full-day,” Ms. Stipek said. “But there is evidence that it will help close that gap. Full-day kindergartners achieve at a higher level.”
For example, officials from the Montgomery County, Md., school district in suburban Washington say adding full-day kindergarten four years ago, along with other reforms in the primary grades, has helped raise math scores among the district’s 2nd graders. It also has helped narrow the achievement gaps between children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the district reports. (“Early Years,” July 9, 2003.)
Maryland is currently phasing in a new full-day-kindergarten requirement statewide, but the 139,200-student Montgomery County district acted before the law went into effect. The law was passed in 2002, but districts have until the 2007-08 school year to have programs in place.
Joann Arowosegbe, the president of the California Kindergarten Association, also testified that the current kindergarten curriculum in the Los Angeles district is not “producing well-rounded kindergarten students,” because the half-day program doesn’t allow enough time for music and other arts.
She added that Open Court, the district’s literacy program for elementary school youngsters, was designed for a full school day.
Others echoed that point.
“The teachers would love the time” provided by a full-day program, said Julie Korenstein, an LAUSD board member.
Ms. Korenstein suggested that lessons on how to run a full-day kindergarten program might be learned from the 1,410-student Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a pre-K-6 charter school in the Los Angeles district that financed full-day kindergarten by pooling various sources of federal money, and by utilizing classroom space efficiently.
‘Haves and Have- Nots’
Some educators, meanwhile, said phasing in the program would likely raise issues of equity.
Linda Guthrie, the secondary vice president for United Teachers Los Angeles, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, said she thought the measure could become divisive.
“We will have haves and have- nots,” she warned.
But according to Mr. Tokofsky’s plan, the program would first be implemented in schools with the lowest “academic performance index,” meaning those that are the lowest-performing according to state standards.