175 schools expand kindergarten

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Last school year, 175 schools budgeted Chapter 1 money for kindergarten programs, according to an analysis by the Chicago Panel on School Policy. The budgets indicate that most are using the money to convert half-day programs into full-day programs, says Todd Rosenkranz, a budget analyst for the Panel.

Reavis Elementary School in Kenwood is one of the 175. Several years ago, the school opted to convert one half-day kindergarten to a full-day program; the goal was to give preschoolers an extra push before 1st grade.

So far, says Principal Winifred French, participants seem to gain “a better foundation” than children in half-day programs. And each year, a number of “graduates” have been accepted by programs for gifted children and by magnet schools.

The full-day kindergarten is popular with parents, who clamor to have their children enrolled. But teacher Vernita Coles says, “We tell parents, ‘This is not a baby-sitting service.’ It’s rigorous. A child has to be mature enough” to handle all-day schooling.

Coles notes that she screens applicants, but looks for aptitude for learning, not acquired knowledge. “I’m not testing for names of the alphabet or numbers,” she explains. “That’s not telling me anything. If they can listen, pay attention, I can teach them.”

Some of the program’s success undoubtedly is due to Coles herself, who takes an academic approach with her class. Children spend part of each day working on beginning math and reading skills, but they also get free time to color, play games or engage in similar traditional kindergarten activities.

In many other major cities, full-day kindergarten is the norm. According to the latest data from the Council of Great City Schools, 66 percent of 1st-graders in the country’s 23 largest urban districts attended full-day kindergarten. In New York City, the figure is 86 percent; and in Dade County, Florida, which includes Miami, the figure is 90 percent.

The trend is in their direction. “Parents are putting tremendous pressure on schools to have all-day programs” because so many mothers work outside the home, explains Barbara Bowman, president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development.

Louise Bates-Ames, co-founder and associate director of the Gesell Institute for Human Development in New Haven, Conn., says placing a child in full-day kindergarten is preferable to putting him or her in a day care center, many of which offer little or no educational activity. “Since day care isn’t working out in many places, [full-day kindergarten] would be better.”

But, Bates-Ames adds, “In general, kids do better with half-day” because some 5-year-olds are not emotionally or socially mature enough for all-day schooling.

All-day kindergarten is most beneficial to children with no preschool background, Bowman maintains; for children who have attended preschool, “there’s no real benefit.” In the final analysis, though, “Any child can do well in any program if it’s well-designed.”

Meanwhile, Board of Education researcher Jeanne Borger says studies suggest that class size is more important than time in class. Half-day kindergartens have the edge here, she adds, because classes tend to be smaller.