Full-day kindergarten can be 'life-changing,' improves scores, later success

Some lawmakers, parents resistant to longer kindergarten

Published: Thursday, March 17 2011 9:00 a.m. MDT

Kindergarten teacher Dianne Amesse shares a laugh with student Aydra Hill. Josh Allen, at right, concentrates on his work on Wednesday at Edgemont Elementary School in Provo. They are part of an all-day kindergarten class.__Dianne Amesse helps Jolee Harris with school work as Jonah Avila watches Wednesday.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO — Dianne Amesse calls her kindergarten class "life-changing."

The five-year-olds may just be working on counting to 20 and putting spaces in between words in their writing journals, but she says offering full-day kindergarten to her students, 18 of whom are considered "at-risk," puts them on a path to success.

"The thing I've seen in years before is at-risk students being taken out of class year after year, even when they are in sixth grade," said Amesse, who teaches kindergarten at Edgemont Elementary. "But because of this rich experience, these kids will have the same opportunity as anyone else. Most are already ready for first grade."

Even Amesse is surprised by how much more her students are learning with the longer day — many are progressing twice as fast as traditional students in the half-day program.

While all-day kindergarten is common in other parts of the country, it's still a novel concept in much of Utah. This is the first year Edgemont has offered full-day kindergarten.

Utah lawmakers, educators and even some parents have traditionally been resistant to the idea of all-day kindergarten, but that could be changing, as studies show that the quality of kindergarten has an impact on later scholastic success and even earning power. Research is also showing that kids in all-day kindergarten perform better than those in half-day programs.

Several years ago, only a handful of schools in Utah even offered full-day kindergarten. But after these schools showed legislatures the strides they were making, lawmakers decided to set money aside for optional extended-day kindergarten, said Reed Spencer, state elementary and language arts specialist. And money was again set aside by the legislature this year that will likely go toward sustaining those programs, Spencer said.

Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, tried to run a bill this session that would only allow the academically at-risk to participate in the program, but the bill never made it out of committee.

Lawmakers in Utah want to see direct correlation between money spent and outcomes, Anderson said, and at-risk students statistically are the ones who benefit the most from full-day kindergarten.

Yet, teachers and districts say that having some "model" students in their classes has helped the lower-achieving students progress faster and has helped the model students grow more as well.

But Anderson doubts the state will ever offer full-day kindergarten to every student because of the amount of children in Utah and the lack of funding. Utah already has the lowest per pupil spending in the country, he added.

But as demographics in Utah change more rapidly, many educators believe it is becoming even more important to offer full-day kindergarten.

At Edgemont Elementary in Provo, the number of students on free-and-reduced-lunch has doubled in the last seven years, Amesse said. And the number of English language learners has also gone up. But this school is hardly an anomaly.

Since 2000, the amount of minorities in Utah, a majority of whom are Latin American, has jumped by 10 percent and is expected to continue to rise over at least the next 40 years, according to the Census Bureau.

In Utah there has also traditionally been a large achievement gap between minority students and non-minority students, said Cori Groth, senior policy associate for the Utah Education Policy Center. And Groth said that gap has been steady over the years.

Yet, district after district has data showing that their achievement gaps are dramatically shrinking for those at-risk students who participate in full-day kindergarten.

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