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September 2, 2013

Does all-day kindergarten work? Answer: Too soon to tell

School officials will need a few years before knowing impact

— For the second year in a row, kindergartners in suburban Indianapolis and Shelby County are spending five full days in class each week, learning to read and count to 100, and now the question is whether it is making a difference.

Clark-Pleasant and Greenwood schools about 15 miles south of Indianapolis in Johnson County are reviewing report cards and comparing in-school assessments students took last year as kindergartners and will now take as first-graders. Officials want to see whether spending an entire day in kindergarten is better when preparing students for the reading, writing and math lessons they’ll be taught later in elementary school, said Clark-Pleasant curriculum instruction specialist Cameron Rains, and Emily Vanus, a kindergarten teacher at Southwest Elementary in Shelby County, said.

School officials will need a few years before they know what kind of impact full-day kindergarten classes are having. They can’t simply compare one year of data to the next, because the abilities of students in every kindergarten class vary, no matter how much time they have spent in school, Rains said.

But over the next several years, schools should be able to see proof of a difference, Rains said.

“When you have access to programming for a kid all day long, there’s so much you can do in terms of eliminating those achievement gaps and making sure the child is prepared and on good footing. The research is very clear in this area,” Rains said.

Up until last year, kindergartners at Clark-Pleasant and some Center Grove, Greenwood and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson students were in school half a day.

And Center Grove and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson districts in Johnson County were charging parents of full-day kindergarten students between $450 and $2,520.

Teachers worried that a half-day in kindergarten wasn’t enough time for all of the children to learn what they needed to by first grade. Last year, the state increased the amount of money given to school districts for kindergarten. The money doesn’t cover all the costs of full-day kindergarten, but schools were able to make up any differences themselves.

More parents signed up their kids for full-day kindergarten because they no longer had to pay fees, such as at Center Grove and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools. Kindergarten enrollment at Johnson County’s public schools rose by 69 students to 1,834 students last August, and this year the number of students increased again, by about 3 percent, to 1,893, according to preliminary enrollment numbers.

With full-day kindergarten, teachers have more time to teach students what they’ll need to know and understand before first grade. And they have more time to work with students who don’t understand what they’ve been taught the first time.

When kindergarten classes were half the day, teachers didn’t have enough time to do that level of in-depth instruction and follow-up, Vanus and Rains said.

When 25 kindergartners arrive on their first day of school, they all come in with different skills and abilities. Some are bilingual or learning English as a second language, others have been through one or two years of preschool and some have never spent an entire day away from their family.

The teacher has to make sure all of them, regardless of how much time they have spent in a classroom, are reading, counting into the triple digits and speaking in complete sentences before first grade, Rains and Vanus said.

At Southwest Elementary, kindergartners now spend at least 90 minutes each day reading stories on their own, with their teachers or in small groups. Few kindergartners can read for 20 minutes or more at a time, so their teachers start them in five- to seven-minute blocks so they won’t get distracted and build up from there, Vanus said.

Kindergartners also have math and writing lessons that last about 40 minutes each. Younger students can’t focus for much longer than that, which is why daily lessons are broken up with lunch, recess and bathroom breaks, Vanus and Rains said.

Southwest Elementary students also have a 30-minute block where they work individually or in small groups with teachers or classroom assistants reviewing what they’ve learned. Most schools use this time to help catch up students who don’t understand specific lessons. But at Southwest Elementary, all students get the one-on-one instruction, and students who already understand or have mastered the lessons use that time to work ahead, Vanus said.

“We basically push them forward, we keep them going at their level,” Vanus said.


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