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

It's About Time

In the last school year, Zoe Bubier was devastated when she got the news that she wouldn't be able to go to kindergarten -- she'd missed the cutoff birth date.

A year later, older and wiser, this seasoned veteran of day care finally got her big moment. But because she's in the Conroe Independent School District, she goes half a day. So school hasn't been, well, quite the experience she and her mother had hoped it would be.

"She really likes school," Kirsten Bubier says. "It's just that she could benefit a whole lot more if she was in for a full day."

With two working parents, a typical Zoe day means a morning race to day care followed by afternoon school and then back to day care. "They've played all morning. They've been rushed through lunch and rushed on a bus and then they get there where it's 'Oh, you want me to behave now?' " her mother says.

A typical kindergarten school day lasts less than three hours. It either starts in the morning and ends by 11 or begins at noon with kids out for pickup at 2:45. And there's a lot of ground to cover in that time.

Kids aren't the only ones who feel a bit rushed in these half-day classes, which still exist in several Houston-area districts. Teachers and aides report the same thing, the feeling that they must hit all their marks all the time and keep moving or they'll get too far behind. And for those intimate little conversations when someone wants to talk about a new puppy or a new baby sister, well, some of those moments get fast-forwarded through in a way educators never wanted to happen.

Jan Randolph teaches kindergarten at Oyster Creek Elementary in the Fort Bend Independent School District, which also has half-day kindergarten. For years, she taught first grade and was a teaching specialist assisting teachers. When she came back to teaching, she went to kindergarten.

She loves teaching but feels at a disadvantage in half-days. Randolph has 41 students instead of 22 -- the state-set maximum elementary class size -- which means 41 parent conferences at a time. Even though the state does not mandate full-day kindergarten -- embarrassingly enough, Texas doesn't mandate kindergarten at all -- it does set a curriculum for kindergarten students. And the half-day curriculum is not one bit different from the full-day. "You can see that's just not realistic," she says.

Actually, the leaders of the Fort Bend schools have come to agree with Randolph. The school board recently voted that starting next fall, all of its kindergarten classes will be full-day. They could feel pretty secure of public support -- an October survey showed that 81 percent of the 8,000 parents who responded favored full-day kindergarten. And teachers had been asking for it for years.

It will mean adding more than 100 teachers. It will mean some older elementary students will be pushed out into portables until more classrooms are built. It will cost the district some money, and FBISD expects to go in the hole on the program at the beginning.

But Fort Bend finally went ahead, says Susan Wey, Area II superintendent, because: "We knew it was right for the kids. We knew we had parent backing, and we knew we'd be able to find the teachers. It was just how much this was going to cost us."

It is right for the kids, and it is something all Texas public school districts ought to be doing immediately. Humble ISD went to full-day after parental interest dwindled to the point where there were almost no half-day classes left. Katy ISD went to full-day last fall. At the end of this month, Alief ISD will consider it. In fact, throughout the state, about 85 percent of all public school districts offer full-day kindergarten. But others, such as Conroe, Friendswood and Pearland, are at half-day with no discernable plans to change.

Opposition usually comes in two forms: emotional and financial. Some people feel a full day of kindergarten is just too much for five-year-olds. They're ignoring the fact that many of these children have already been in a structured day-care setting or are good readers, thanks to a stay-at-home parent. The flip side is the kids who know next to nothing, some of whom don't speak English well. Why would you want to spend less time playing catch-up with them?

Yes, it will cost taxpayers more money. It means reallocating space and finding new teachers and redrawing bus routes. Fort Bend took a hard look at its finances and realized: a) it would about double its stipend from the state for students in full-day kindergarten, and b) it will probably save some money by not making midday bus runs ferrying five-year-olds in and out. Before that realization, Fort Bend had bought into the defenses frequently used by area districts: that they are growing too fast all over to think about this, and that full-day kindergarten would be great, but it's a luxury they can't afford.

It isn't a luxury. It's essential. What districts can't afford is to keep shortchanging kids.

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.

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."

Again, though, Fort Bend's main focus was the changing needs of students, Wey says.

"When you look at the kindergarten curriculum, the number of things that kindergartners are required to learn has almost quadrupled," Wey says. "We weren't giving the teachers enough time to teach and the children enough time to learn."

For parents still convinced that half-day is better, there's always the private-school route. Private schools should have a lot of spaces opening up -- maybe they'll make the transition to the half-day alternative. The market always fills a need.

Fort Bend has made a great decision in joining the ranks of full-day kindergartens. It has recognized that the crescendo ending to the kindergarten year is no longer making butter or constructing a spewing volcano, delightful as both activities can be. It has freed up some time for children and teachers to think, learn and be challenged. It has built in some rest stops along the way. So everyone can take off their running shoes, sit down and listen to each other a little bit more.


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