Early Childhood

Teachers of Kindergartners Adapt to Full Days

By Linda Jacobson — January 25, 2005 8 min read
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Holding up stiff cardboard figures, Miriam Kupalian runs her kindergartners through a quick review of shapes, such as the hexagon and the trapezoid. The children, seated at their desks, raise their hands and try to be called on when their teacher asks if anyone can think of a shape with no sides.

“Circle,” comes back a reply.

Then she asks individual pupils here in her class at Cheremoya Elementary School to think of patterns using the names of shapes.

Kindergarten teacher Miriam Kupaliam reviews geometric shapes for a math lesson at Cheremoya Elementary School in Los Angeles. The school started full-day kindergarten classes last fall.

“Square, circle, triangle,” 5-year-old Blaize Smith offers quietly before repeating with more confidence: “Square, circle, triangle.”

“What kind of pattern is that?” Ms. Kupalian quizzes. “An A-B-C pattern,” several children answer.

Next, the group moves on to a study of the numbers “15” and “16” and the terms “one more,” and “one less.” The youngsters use small, plastic teddy bears to form a group of 10 and then add one more, two more, and so on.

“I’m working on getting them to use their math vocabulary,” explains Ms. Kupalian, who’s been teaching kindergarten five years. The extended and integrated mathematics lesson is just the kind that this teacher would not have had time for last year, when kindergarten classes ran a little more than three hours. But now, her school, located on a busy street in Hollywood, is one of 170 in the Los Angeles Unified School District that are in the first year of offering full-day kindergarten. Another 170 are expected to join them next school year, with 90 and 20 the following two years.

“Unfortunately, in a half-day program, you have little time for beyond the basics,” said James Morris, the assistant superintendent for elementary instructional services in the 746,000-student district. “We really believe this is the key to preventing the achievement gap.”

The continuing move nationwide to full-day kindergarten gives teachers the opportunity to develop pupils’ skills and a chance to delve deeper into topics, even as some observers voice concern over the academic tilt of such classes.

Seizing the Opportunity

Many teachers are making the most of the longer day.

“I used to feel really awful because I wouldn’t have time to read a book. Now, I read three or four a day” to pupils, said Bronwyn Rubenstein, a kindergarten teacher at Arrowhead Elementary School in the 44,000-student Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, which added all-day classes last fall.

Previously, Ms. Rubenstein said, she also never had time for the in-depth writing activities that she would hear about at educational conferences. These days, the children in her class are writing rough drafts, editing their work, and adding illustrations—learning all the steps involved in publishing their own books.

And at Liberty Elementary School, also in the Paradise Valley district, Rona Anderson can now let her kindergartners leave their Lego creations—models that they’re writing about in their journals—on display for an extended period of time.

While expanding public preschool programs is an increasingly popular strategy for narrowing achievement gaps and preparing chiefly 4-year-olds for the rest of elementary school, many states and districts are still working on turning their half-day kindergarten programs into daylong ones for 5- and 6-year-olds.

The governors of Arizona, Indiana, and Massachusetts all placed full-day kindergarten at the top of their legislative agendas last year.

“In all of those cases, the status is that it’s still a top priority, but there’s just not the funding to do it statewide,” said Kristie Kauerz, the program director for early learning at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy-research organization.

Consequently, some governors, such as Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, are implementing full-day programs on a limited basis, with plans to expand later. The Arizona legislature passed a measure last year that establishes all-day kindergarten in more than 130 schools with high percentages of poor children.

In other states, districts are either paying for full-day kindergarten with local funds or giving parents the option of paying tuition for the classes. All told, nine states require districts to offer full-day kindergarten; seven provide financial incentives for districts to do so.

In the Paradise Valley district—even though some of the schools would have qualified for full-day kindergarten under the Democratic governor’s plan—the community approved a property-tax increase so that every elementary school in the district could provide it.

‘In Search of a Problem’

Not everyone, though, is convinced that such programs are a goal worth pursuing.

Vicki Murray, an education analyst at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix, calls Gov. Napolitano’s initiative a “solution in search of a problem,” and argues that most children in the state’s poorest districts are already in class all day.

And in Utah, the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute, also a conservative organization, is proposing that the state give parents a $500 tax credit if they don’t send their children to kindergarten. Paul T. Mero, the president of the institute, says that 5-year-olds need more—not less—time with their parents before more formal schooling begins.

Some experts on early-childhood education also express concern over 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?’ ” said Ms. Kauerz of the ecs. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. Full-day programs can still be developmentally appropriate.”

Research Inconclusive

Full-day kindergarten can make practical sense from a transportation perspective and is preferred by working parents because it alleviates the need for child care for the other half of the day.

Policymakers pushing for full-day programs are also certain that they are backed up by research.

“Our children will be better prepared to learn, they will be less likely to drop out of high school, and they will have higher academic achievement if we start them off on a stronger footing,” Gov. Napolitano said during her 2004 State of the State speech.

The evidence that full-day programs improve achievement is not quite so solid, however. Benefits often linked to them are based more on anecdotal reports because few studies have been conducted in which children were randomly assigned to either half- or full-day classes, according to a 2002 review of the research by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore.

In general, researchers have discovered no detrimental effects of a full school day for 5- and 6-year-olds. Although they have found that full-day programs allow children to make more progress academically during the kindergarten year, questions persist about whether those gains endure as children move into 1st grade and beyond.

“It’s pretty clear that kids in full-day programs are exposed to more, but there’s not a real clear picture of what you get more of,” said Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who has observed both half- and full-day programs. “It looks to us that the time gets used fairly well.”

Other studies have found benefits for teachers, such as more one-on-one and small group time for pupils, more opportunities to get to know parents, and more time to assess youngsters and tailor instruction to meet specific needs.

“I feel like we’ve built an extraordinary community,” Ms. Rubenstein said of her class of 25 children in the Paradise Valley district. “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.”

Need for Training

With or without a statewide or local initiative, kindergarten teachers making the transition to the longer day say it’s important for districts to provide them with training and additional resources.

In fact, when the Los Angeles school board was considering last spring whether to approve the proposal for full-day kindergarten, United Teachers of Los Angeles opposed the plan. Union officials didn’t think the district could implement the program correctly in such a short time or give teachers the support they needed.

Mike Dreebin, the elementary vice president for utla, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, said problems continue. Among others, he cited insufficient money for all full-day kindergarten teachers to have classroom assistants or for the district to hire enough staff members to supervise children on the playground—a task the union contract prohibits teachers from doing. The union, he said, also believed that teachers simply weren’t adequately prepared.

District administrators are trying to respond to the training issue by offering Saturday workshops on topics from health and nutrition to block play.

In Arizona’s Paradise Valley, meanwhile, kindergarten enrollment has increased, producing a demand for more teachers. Many of them are either recent graduates or older teachers who have never taught kindergarten.

“If you don’t offer them training and support, it’s going to be a very tough year for them,” said Ms. Rubenstein, a kindergarten teacher for 15 years.

The Arizona district ran kindergarten “academies” to prepare teachers for the new school year. Administrators also assigned mentors, with experience in the primary grades, to those teachers who needed help making the transition.

‘Things That Matter’

Many kindergarten teachers say they feel more connected to the rest of the staff now that they have a full-day class.

Some say they worried at the beginning of the year that their charges might need an after-lunch nap. In the early weeks of school, Ms. Rubenstein said, two of her pupils fell asleep during a lesson. But with the fall semester now behind them, those concerns no longer exist.

At Los Angeles’ Cheremoya Elementary, for example, the children are alert at 1 p.m., participating, and even eager to play a game in which one child jumps and the others count along.

At first, teachers said they wondered how they would fill up all the instructional time after being used to compressing the curriculum into two or three hours.

Ms. Rubenstein, for one, said she didn’t want to run the risk of “overdoing it” with academic work.

“But we have to fill it with things that matter,” she said of the full-day class, “not just fluff or worksheets.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Teachers of Kindergartners Adapt to Full Days


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