by Jenny Barriger
Kindergarten is a right of passage for so many; unparalleled in the excitement that surrounds finally getting to go to that “big kid” place. What was once a world of “Farmer in the Dell”, inflatable letter people and having the teacher remind us how to be a friend has changed to be a very different place in the 21st century. With No Child Left Behind and education standards higher than ever, kindergarten is still the wading pool in school experience, but with a different look and slightly higher results as the outcome.
For a plethora of reasons, which are attached to documented studies, there has been a trend in our country towards full-day kindergarten. The Montana Legislature passed financial legislation last spring to make full-day kindergarten a possibility for Montana’s public schools as well. Many school districts took the opportunity to do just that. Billings School district 2 was one of those, committing to provide full day kindergarten for the approximately 1100 kindergarten students it currently serves. In essence, it was like adding 550 students to the school district overnight.
There were mixed emotions in Billings upon the announcement of this new adventure. Karen Bravo a Kindergarten teacher at Boulder Elementary school’s first reaction was, “It’s about time that they give equal time to the little ones.” However, while there were parents on board with the plan, there was a large group of parents that were against sending their children to full day kindergarten and were planning on using the state mandated half day option. “It looked at first as if we would have about 1/3 of our 2007-2008 kindergarten population still wanting to attend a ½ day program.” said Jack Copps, Superintendent of School District 2.
When Jennifer Beauto, mother of a Emily, was called by the principal of the school her daughter was registered to attend to inform her of the new program, her first reaction was, “Is it going to be daycare? I am only interested if it is not going to be daycare.” Other parents were concerned by the short amount of time the district had to get the program together. There were many things to consider such as classroom space, staffing and setting curriculum for the new program.
After jumping the major hurdles of getting the program started, and after letting parents know what to expect only 12 out of the 1100 kindergarten students ended up wanting a ½ day program, an astonishingly smaller number than the 1/3 initially expected.
There are many studied benefits to all day kindergarten programs. Research shows that education money is well spent when it is on early childhood education. It is more effectively spent at this age than on older at risk students. “If we can get all children on a level playing field at an early age, then they are more likely to have success and stay in school later on”, says Jack Copps. Students come into kindergarten at so many different levels. Full day kindergarten gives teachers the time to get all students up to a successful level. In the past, there was no time for recess let alone extra help for students. Karen Bravo agrees, “We now have time to learn.” The children are ready to go into first grade…all of them are ready” Karen pointed out that in the past that was not the case.
Before the program started, parents were concerned about their children having any down time to rest during the day. According to input by educators, the full day has actually created a more relaxed learning atmosphere as well as the opportunity to include more activities to learn the same skills. These activities include free exploration and center time activities to expand on subjects rather than just utilizing pencil paper type activities. The repetition of learning and skills within this atmosphere takes advantage of how children learn at this age. There is time to learn the same thing in many different ways to allow for different learning styles and ensure success for every child.
The learning objectives in kindergarten haven’t changed from the expectations of half day kindergarten. Students still learn their alphabet, phonics, reading at a basic level and basic math to name a few skills. However, Karen Bravo says that she is seeing children achieve at higher levels this year before leaving kindergarten than she has ever seen before. “I also see a higher level of confidence in my students, which will make a big difference when these children go into first grade.” Also, we have time for other stuff as well. Music and Physical Education have been added back into the kindergarten curriculum. There is also more time to bring other subjects into the learning spectrum as well.
The program overall seems to be successful, but a few success stories make the success even sweeter:
At the beginning of the year, Troy* had a hard time socially and academically. He had longs days, disruptive behaviors, and peer confrontations. Teachers and parents worked together, and because of the extra time to work with him he is now succeeding academically and socially. Troy is now happy to be in school and even cried because he would miss his teacher over winter break.
Julia* came from an environment where there was no previous experience with school or socialization with other children. When she came to kindergarten she could only write the first letter of her name and knew nothing of books; she had never used scissors. Julia was very shy and was not sure what was expected of her at school. Her little eyes never moved from her teacher, but she never spoke.
Julia struggled until December, but with the extra time, she was enrolled in an outside language program with a specialist, a school friendship group with a counselor, and in speech therapy. This same little girl at the end of the year could write paragraphs, she was in the highest level reading group. Her parents said that by the end of the year she loved coming to school…she now loves to read.
Jack Copps says, “I see at-risk students changing. These were kids who weren’t ready for anything, now they are responsive, happy and they feel like they belong. They progress so much more rapidly to get back to where the other children are due to the increased time in a learning environment. These at-risk kids are more comfortable in the school environment which in the end should lead to a lower dropout rate.”
The overall consensus from district staff and parents alike is that full-day kindergarten in Billings Public Schools has been a success. However, many parents still wonder if their five year old child is ready for all day kindergarten. Educators want parents to know that age doesn’t matter: development matters and being ready for kindergarten hasn’t changed any with full vs. half day. Parents need to be aware of what it involves for their child to be ready for kindergarten. There are checklists that you can pick up from your local school or you can find them on the internet. This is a topic that is very individually based for each child. Every child is an individual; you have to do what is right for your child. Take into consideration that academics don’t matter as much as emotional readiness. Academics will happen, however it is best if your child is confident and secure and that they know they can do it. SFM
*names have been changed.
Jenny Barriger is the co-founder of Simply Family Magazine. She lives in Billings with her husband, 7 year old daughter and 3 year old son.