Enrolling your son or daughter in school for the first time comes with myriad decisions that could affect future learning.
Is my son ready to start school?
Is this the right school for my daughter?
Will this be a good school district throughout my son’s education?
Should I choose a full- or half-day kindergarten program?
One of those questions might get a littler easier to answer. The full-day vs. half-day kindergarten debate is drawing to a close in Minnesota as increasing parents, educators, and school districts embrace all-day learning. In fall 2012, more than 70 percent of the state’s kindergarteners were enrolled in a full-day program.
The free full-day learning option that many families have sought will be available in all school districts beginning in fall 2014. The Minnesota Legislature included $134 million in funding for a full-day option in every district as part of a huge expansion of education funding in the state.
Two-thirds of school districts in Minnesota provided the free full-day kindergarten option during the 2012–13 school year (2013–14 data will not be finalized until after the new year). Other districts offer alternate days of full-day programming or a fee-based model where parents can pay to enroll their child in a full-day program. More than 10,000 students were enrolled last year in full-day kindergarten at a cost to their parents.
When the state makes the switch, half-day programs may still be available for the parents who elect that option. But soon a full day of school could become the norm for young students as parents and teachers expand their understanding of what kindergartners are capable of in the classroom.
“Kids are expected to do much more now,” says Andrea Crampton, Burnsville, who enrolled her daughter in a full-day program. “This isn’t my kindergarten from when I went to school.”
Time to learn
The single biggest difference between a full and half day experience at most schools is simply time.
Schools that provide both options work to keep the content and curriculum the same for all of their students. The full-day groups are just provided more time to work with the concepts covered that day.
Sibley Elementary School in the Northfield Public School District has operated both a half-day and fee-based full-day program for about 10 years. There, depending on a family’s income, full-day kindergarten costs $3,160, $2,200, or $950 a year. Their kindergarteners are about evenly split between the two options.
“We’ve always been in the mindset that one program isn’t better than another,” Principal Scott Sannes says.
The curriculum for both programs is the same, but the full-day groups have an entire afternoon as an “extension of the learning that occurred in the morning,” Sannes says.
Students might be exposed to a new math concept in the morning and have independent or group work time later in the afternoon to move at their own pace with the material.
For Kyla Wahlstrom, a University of Minnesota researcher, the “beauty of an all-day kindergarten program is that the kids aren’t rushed.”
Wahlstrom conducted a longitudinal study of kindergarten programs in the Burnsville Eagan Savage school district. In visiting the classrooms, she noted the full-day experience gave teachers the opportunity to structure activities for as long as the students were willing to go along with them, rather than fitting into a rigid schedule.
With the extra time, teachers added depth to their lessons; and students completed more activities independently or in groups and were able to manage their own time—like choosing to read a book if they finished an activity early.
For Jon Bonneville, principal at Hidden Valley Elementary in Savage, having kindergarteners in school all day gives him more opportunity to provide additional support—like reading, math, or English as a Second Language specialists—to students who need it.
“When you can provide programming at that kindergarten level and bring kids up to speed, fewer kids need that support later on,” he says.
Wahlstrom’s research shows children who completed the full-day program achieved more, and were more academically prepared.
The study showed students in the full-day program scored higher than the national average on the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests—a widely used assessment of early literacy skills—in first, second, and third grade.
They also outperformed their peers in the district’s half-day program on the same literacy tests in first and second grade.
In the second year of the study, more than 75 percent of teachers reported the current first grade class that had also completed full-day kindergarten was better prepared academically than previous classes.
By third grade, the students who had completed full-day kindergarten met expectations on the third grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment at a higher rate than those who had half-day kindergarten.
While the achievement gains can be significant initially following the full-day kindergarten program, Sannes says by the time many students at Sibley Elementary School in Northfield get to second grade it’s hard to tell which students attended full- or half-day kindergarten.
“We have students from all different academic, behavioral, and social and emotional levels,” he says.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to full-day kindergarten is that it equalizes differences between students from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Many see full-day kindergarten as one way to address the widening achievement gap.
With half-day kindergarten, some students have access to enrichment activities after school at fee-based full-day kindergarten, daycares, or in the home. But those additional enrichment opportunities aren’t universal, leading to gaps in achievement later on.
Offering a fee-based full-day program and a half-day option created inequities between “the kids who could afford it and the kids who couldn’t,” Bonneville says.
By making full-day kindergarten available to everyone “kids are coming in at a level playing field,” he says.
Parents’ full-day experiences
Parents Jody and Scott Wroblewski enrolled their son Brody in full-day kindergarten at Bendix Elementary in the Annandale school district two years ago. They paid about $200 a month for the extra time.
Though he had previously attended preschool, Brody had a hard time adjusting to kindergarten, his mother says.
“He had a hard time sitting still for the academic stuff,” she says. “He seemed to have a lot of anxious energy.”
But he matured over the course of the year and his parents saw growth in his reading and spelling abilities.
“I think full-day kindergarten is really important, but schools need to make that transition a little easier.“
Parents and educators said the first few weeks of school should be less rigid to give kindergartners time to adjust to the new all-day routine. Some classes allow more time for naps, play, or recess as needed. Wroblewski said her son’s teacher would let Brody and other students just run up and down the hallway outside of recess time because they had so much energy.
Though it was the center of Wahlstrom’s study for many years, the Burnsville Eagan Savage school district did not make the switch to full-day kindergarten until the 2012–13 school year.
Principal Bonneville says parents and teachers were “overjoyed” with the change to universal full-day programming.
“Parents are surprised at how well their kids do in a full-day program,” he says. “Sometimes we underestimate what our kids are capable of.”
For Andrea Crampton, who enrolled her daughter Kaylee at Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville, the district’s move to all-day kindergarten couldn’t have come at a better moment.
In weighing kindergarten options, Crampton decided she wanted her daughter to have the full-day experience long before the district made the switch, and she was prepared to pay for it, too.
But the district began providing free all-day kindergarten right before it was time for Kaylee to enroll.
It was a “natural transition,” Crampton says, because her daughter attended the Blue Cross Blue Shield Child Development Center that helped prepare her for kindergarten.
“She had a fantastic experience with the school,” Crampton says. “She’s still talking about her teacher every week.”
Now as Kaylee enters first grade, Crampton says she recommends full-day kindergarten to other parents. •