It's About Time

Fort Bend is putting an end to racing teachers and kids through half-day kindergarten. But too many other districts still haven't wised up.

Way back in 1984, the Texas legislature decided to offer school districts a deal: Put in full-day kindergarten, and we'll double the money we send you to around $5,000 per kid.

A lot of districts didn't bite. Even though it paid for teachers and materials, the money didn't stretch so far as to provide new buildings. Besides, educators weren't at all sure they had widespread support for full days.

Jan Randolph looks forward to spending more time with each student in full-day classes.
Margaret Downing
Jan Randolph looks forward to spending more time with each student in full-day classes.

The Houston Independent School District was an exception. Dr. Janice Heffer, HISD's manager of early childhood, says the district was one of the first to move forward and hasn't regretted it.

Kindergarten does not mean sitting at desks with workbooks for hours on end, she says. It means sitting on the floor, working with tangible objects, learning, for example, how to estimate the number of blocks it takes to build a tower. "We're laying the foundation for the learning and testing that will follow," Heffer says. It also means learning letters and phonics and at least the basics of reading. It is small group instruction and rest times and having the opportunity to help students who might founder without some individual attention.

For years, kindergarten teachers were dismissed by many adults who thought all they did was baby-sit while kids played all day, although Heffer says the push for early childhood learning has changed that view.

The biggest challenge, of course, is the wide range of children who arrive at a kindergarten teacher's doorstep. "Some have read 1,000 books. Others have no background of literacy at all," Heffer says.

That's what teacher Jan Randolph calls one of her epiphanies.

"Last year in my class, I had children coming in to me that were reading on a third-grade level, and I had children who never held a pencil or a pair of scissors in their hand and didn't know how to write their name and didn't recognize their name."

She had kids who'd just celebrated their sixth birthday in September, and others who just days before in August had turned five. If you're 40 and 41, there's no difference. At the kindergarten level, we're talking chasm.

Small group instruction is the best way to handle these differences in academics and socialization, teachers say, but that's tough to fit into an instructional day of less than three hours.

In all this half-day mishmash, afternoon kindergartners get the worst deal. They start school at a time of day when their attention spans are likely to be at their shortest. And in districts such as Fort Bend, with occasional early dismissal days because of holidays and teacher- parent conferences, they actually go to school less.

End the day at 10:45 to meet your average daily attendance requirements for the state's money. On those days, the morning kindergartners go to school. But the afternoon kids do not.

This is not a good way to build a No Child Left Behind kind of nation. Especially for a student facing the prospect of Mr. Bush's third-grade pass/fail reading test, which may keep him from going on to the fourth grade.

State Representative Paul Sadler fought and lost the mandatory kindergarten attendance battle in Texas. The Democrat from Henderson entered the fray in 1999 when then-governor Bush introduced his reading initiative. For the first time Texas was setting a pass/fail standard for nine-year-olds, based on their scores on one standardized reading test. If a child failed the test, then regardless of grades or academic performance he would fail the school year.

"I told them I thought that was a horrible policy," Sadler says. If the state was going to embark upon such a "disastrous" policy, Sadler says, "I told them you better back up to pre-K and make kindergarten mandatory and beef up our program in kindergarten."

So Sadler introduced a bill to require kindergarten. He estimated the cost at about $165 million annually just for putting all these students in a full-day setting. Additional costs for textbooks and buildings would run into the millions.

Even though the state had a surplus of money then, Sadler's bill did not pass. But he got some amendments to Bush's bill, such as offering multiple chances to pass the third-grade reading test and making summer school available. "I tried to build as much compassion into the program as I could," Sadler says.

As for full-day versus half-day, Sadler picks his words carefully. For his own family, he says, "I prefer full-day." Parents who want full-day should get that, and parents who want half-day should be able to do that, Sadler says. "The state policy encourages full-day kindergarten. I prefer it when we can at least offer it to parents."

There's another financial aspect that often gets overlooked. That's the cost to kindergartners' parents of day care for half the day, or of staying home with a child because he's only in school half a day.

It wasn't something Fort Bend considered in making its plans, Susan Wey says, but the district officials recognize that factor is there.

There are also parents who want full-day kindergarten, so they pay for private school. "From my experience as principal," Wey says, "whenever you were doing your projections for next year, if you had four sections of kindergarten, you'd have five sections of first grade. Yes, I think we're going to pick up quite a few students from the private schools."

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