The ABCs of Kindergarten
For both parents and children, kindergarten is a rite of passage. With so many “firsts,” such as those first school bus rides, packed lunches and evenings of homework, all parents hope for a strong start to help their children feel good about themselves and school. But before buying backpacks and lunch boxes, there is much to consider for new kindergarten parents, including whether to send your child to a half-day or full-day class. To do that, you’ll need to know what options exist where you live.
Eighty-eight percent of Massachusetts kindergartners attended a full-day program during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the nonprofit Strategies for Children, which advocates for all children in the state to have access to high-quality, full-day kindergarten. The statistic highlights a growing trend away from half-day enrollment and an increasing demand for full-day kindergarten, and many Massachusetts school districts are adjusting their programs accordingly.
“The early learning years are a critical time for children’s development,” explains Christopher Martes, president and CEO of Strategies for Children. “We see full-day kindergarten as a critical component of the early learning trajectory.”
Kindergarten programs vary greatly, even throughout our state. Massachusetts law requires schools to offer half-day kindergarten consisting of 425 hours of learning in the 180-day school year. Full-day kindergarten students receive a minimum of 850 hours of instruction per year.
Of the 312 school districts in Massachusetts, 224 districts offer tuition-free, full-day kindergarten with no option of half-day. Seventy other districts offer both half- and full-day kindergarten, and nine districts offer only half-day kindergarten. With such a variety of kindergarten programs, many wonder how and why the programs differ.
“We have a strong tradition of local control of schools in Massachusetts,” explains Martes. “We would like to see full-day kindergarten offered free in all communities, but we understand that for some suburban communities trying to balance budgets, charging tuition for full-day kindergarten is a compromise that they have to make.”
Who Pays for Full-Day K?
In districts offering both half- and full-day kindergarten, parents often enter a lottery or wait on a list hoping to secure a seat for their child in a full-day classroom. If they are chosen, they pay tuition to the school district to cover the additional school time.
Tuition rates vary across the state. According to Strategies for Children, schools that receive state grants cannot charge more than $4,000 per school year and must give discounts to families with more than one child attending full-day kindergarten in the same calendar year. There is no tuition cap on schools without state funding, nor do they need to offer multi-sibling discounts. For the 2013-2014 school year, the tuition range in districts that have state grants was $1,800 to $4,000 per year. In those without grants, it was $995 to $4,970.
Half-Day vs. Full-Day K
Not only is there a difference in the time allotment, but according to Jacqueline Reis of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “the depth of instruction” is different in part-day and full-day kindergarten classrooms. “Quality full-day kindergarten gives children more time to focus, explore content, reflect on activities and transition between them,” she says.
Many proponents of half-day kindergarten are families with a stay-at-home parent or guardian. Half-day kindergarten programs run approximately three hours, comprised of instruction in literacy and math; perhaps a special class, such as music, art, library or physical education; snack time; and, when possible, recess. Fitting all this into a half day results in a fast-paced environment as opposed to the more relaxed pace of a full day.
“I feel the biggest advantage to half-day kindergarten is relishing childhood a little longer,” says Bethany Arguin, a half-day kindergarten teacher and mother of two from Freetown. “The half day is simply the developmentally appropriate situation for some students.” Arguin notes this is especially true of students for which kindergarten is their first exposure to school.
There are no prerequisites for what children should know when they start kindergarten because preschool is not mandatory in Massachusetts. “We follow the Common Core just like any grade,” says Arguin. “The only difference is we can’t assume the children have prerequisite skills … because not all children attend preschool.”
Full-day kindergarten runs for approximately six hours and was fundamentally designed to afford additional time for students to learn and socialize in the classroom. Full-day classrooms also provide an opportunity for more consistent care for children, particularly those with working parents or from disadvantaged areas. A full-day classroom schedule also accommodates lunch, a quiet rest period, another block of instruction or special class, a snack and recess.
“Even teaching full-day kindergarten I never feel like I have enough time to fit in everything that I need to teach,” says Laura Albano, a full-day kindergarten teacher in Waltham.
Arguin agrees. “I do feel that every teacher, even the full-day teacher, feels the pinch where they wish they had some extra time,” she says. “If you add in lunch, recess and rest time – that is about one and a half hours plus transition time – the full-day teacher only has at most an hour extra with their students.”
From learning to buy lunch and navigate a cafeteria to being respectful and quiet during the rest period, the second half of a school day provides socially rich opportunities for kindergarteners. “Socially, the first-grade teachers notice a difference between those students who attended half-day and full-day kindergarten programs. And by this, I mean the stamina of the full day,” says Arguin. “So, for some, the first couple of weeks of first grade are difficult.”
Stamina is certainly something full-day kindergarteners must develop. “My daughter is tired when she gets off the bus at 3:15 after being gone since 8:05,” says Kerri Nekervis of Maynard. That makes for meltdowns and tantrums at the end of the day.
Albano echoes the sentiment. “Most of the students in my class in the first few weeks of school are unable to focus and participate in activities for the afternoon,” she says. “They are exhausted because they are not used to the structure of kindergarten and many expect naps by mid-day.”
“Kindergarten, as with other grades, should be preparing students to know and be able to learn the concepts and skills outlined in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks and beyond,” explains Reis. Both half- and full-day kindergarten programs base their classroom syllabus on these standards, which provide guidelines for what schools should teach and have as learning goals for grades K-12. Below are a few of those requirements
English Language Arts:
• With prompting and support, identify characters, settings and major events in a story; name the author and illustrator of a story, and define the role of each in telling a story.
• Recognize and name all uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
• Count, pronounce, blend and segment syllables in spoken words.
• Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words.
• Spell simple words phonetically, drawing on knowledge of sound-letter relationships.
• Capitalize the first word in a sentence and the pronoun I.
• Recognize and name end punctuation.
• Read emergent reader texts with purpose and understanding.
• Understand the relationship between numbers and quantities.
• Write numbers from 0 to 20.
• Identify whether the number of objects in one group is greater than, less than or equal to the number of objects in another group.
• Describe objects in the environment using names of shapes and describe the relative positions of these objects using terms such as above, below, beside, in front of, behind and next to.
Expectations such as these persuade many parents to choose full-day kindergarten to help prepare their child for the school years ahead.
Beyond the Classroom
Cynthia Maxfield, an early childhood coordinator for the Nashoba Regional School District, points out that curriculum is not strictly confined to the classroom. “Observing and discussing the weather each day or the changes happening in the season – whether in a classroom, outdoors or at home – is curriculum,” says Maxfield. “Every experience and observation is an opportunity for children to discuss, learn new language, and develop thinking and problem-solving skills. This occurs all day long in and out of school.”
While parents and caregivers have an obligation to continue a child’s learning at home, Albano warns against overwhelming children with academics outside of school. “Forcing your child to do extensive work at home is only going to burn him or her out and make learning become a chore,” she says.
Instead, children can learn through activities, such as reading together, playdates with similar-aged friends or frequent visits to a local library. There are also many great online apps and websites geared toward early literacy and math that make learning fun for kids, although kids should work within time limits for electronic devices.
As the push for full-day kindergarten grows, one Medfield parent whose child will attend kindergarten next year shares her concern. “The expense of full-day kindergarten is more than my family can afford,” says Kristen, who asked that her last name be kept confidential. “My biggest worry is that my child will be behind when she enters first grade and quite honestly, it’s just not fair to her. Shouldn’t an equal educational opportunity be available to all children, especially if building a strong foundation in the early years is so crucial? How can we expect them to adapt to rigorous new standards without giving them a solid and equal base from the start?”