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Ravell Call, Deseret News
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.

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.

In Canyons School District, where full-day kindergarten is offered at Title I schools, kindergartners saw a 40 percent gain in literacy skills last year, said Amber Roderick-Landward, who oversees curriculum for elementary schools in the district. She said the district is able to close the achievement gap easier and much quicker in the early years than later on. She hopes to offer more full-day kindergarten classes if funds are made available.

In Cache County, just an 30 extra minutes of intensive literacy instruction a day for the most at-risk kindergarten classes has made a big difference, said Sarah Krebs, literacy specialist for the district. The district choose to serve more students in a shorter time period with the optional extended-day kindergarten money but would love to be able to offer full-day kindergarten to their students as well.

In Salt Lake City School District last year, students who averaged a 20 percent achievement gap to their peers before kindergarten in language arts only had a 2 percent gap after participating in full-day kindergarten.

"It's really the only time in a child's education we can double their educational instructional time," said Jo Ellen Shaeffer, assessment and evaluation director for the Salt Lake City School District. Many of Salt Lake City's Title 1 schools have full-day kindergarten classes for all students. And Shaeffer said only a handful of parents opt out while there are dozens of students on waiting lists.

Statewide, only about 1 percent of parents notified that their child qualifies for all-day kindergarten opts out, Spencer said.

"We have never had a program that's had more evidence than this behind it," Spencer said. "It is making a difference."

And research backs up these kinds of trends.

Students in full-day kindergarten get more time for one-on-one attention with the teacher, and they also normally have more academic-focused learning time, said Peter Pizzolongo, senior director for professional development for The National Association for the Education of Young Children.

While some studies show some of these all-day kindergartners leveling off after third grade in academic achievement, he believes it's because students at risk need additional programs in higher grades to keep them on track and not because full-day kindergarten did offer them that at the time.

Some studies have shown up to a $17 return for every $1 spent on early childhood education, he said.

"When you look at 12th grade physics and then you look at children playing at a water table, the latter doesn't seem like anything you would want to spend your money on," Pizzolongo said. "But a quality kindergarten class is as important, if not more important, than a 12th grade physics class."

Also, the states making the biggest strides in student performance are dedicating funds to early childhood education, Spencer said. Florida, a state Utah has looked to as an example for academic success, has over 60 percent of its 4-year-olds in pre-K programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). And nationwide, 60 percent of kindergartners are in a full-day program.

But groups like the Utah Eagle Forum are against full-day kindergarten, saying 5-year-olds need to spend more time with their parents.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of Utah Eagle Forum, said traditionally kindergarten was meant to be half-day to prepare students for a full day in first grade.

"It seems more and more they try to push little children out of the home sooner," said Ruzicka, who called full-day kindergarten an anti-family policy. "I believe a child does better if they can stay at home and play with their mother or father and prepare for all-day in first grade."

And traditionally legislatures have been wary of offering a full-day kindergarten program to students not at risk, feeling parents might just see it as a free day care service.

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But full-day kindergarten is anything but a day care, Spencer said. Students in Amesse's class on Wednesday worked on numbers and shapes when they first came into class. Then they talked about the days of the week and sang a song. They worked on writing and drawing for about 30 minutes, then read a book that taught them about words ending in "ug." Certain students who are struggling were pulled aside to work on sight-words, and Amesse had time to talk and work with each student individually if only for a few minutes and that was just by 10 a.m. Amesse said her days were very different in half-day classes. She now has time to work more in-depth on language art skills and teach the students social studies, science, art and music.

And parents have noticed the difference.

"We have definitely noticed a lot of improvement," said Paul Gehrig, as he was dropping off his 5-year-old Wednesday morning. "She's more social and her reading is amazing. I don't think she would have gotten as far as she has in half-day."

e-mail: slenz@desnews.com