The kindergarten challenge

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Belding Elementary

Photo by Jason Reblando

Belding Elementary

On the first day of school at Ashe Elementary, kindergarten teacher Monica Hamilton had 14 students for a full-day class—small enough to give each child plenty of attention and, according to research, make a significant impact on learning. But that was about to change.

Nearly two-thirds of the children who would end up in Hamilton’s class had yet to show up for school. As they did, she quickly found herself struggling to corral about 40 kindergarteners.

When students came back from fall break on October 12 (Ashe is a Track E school and operates on a year-round calendar with frequent breaks instead of a three-month summer break), the class had been split into morning and afternoon sessions. Hamilton was frazzled. Parents who wanted a full-day kindergarten transferred their children to other schools. Other parents were left scrambling to find child care options. There were mix-ups: A couple of parents dropped off children for the wrong session at first, while others failed to pick up their children at the right time.

It was the second year in a row that this scenario had played out at Ashe, a predominantly black school in the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side. 

Two years ago, Ashe had one full-day kindergarten class, paid for with discretionary funds, and two half-day classes. But enrollment was on a downswing, and as a result, the district’s staffing formula would have required the school to create a split class in the upper grades. To avoid doing so, school administrators made a tough decision: shifting money from the full-day program to keep an extra teacher in the upper grades. 

“You are caught in between,” says Assistant Principal Jerome Ferrell Jr.

Ashe’s story illustrates one of the ways in which Chicago Public Schools falls short in providing children with a high-quality experience as they begin their first year of formal schooling: the uneven distribution of full-day kindergarten. Educators consider full-day kindergarten to be a critical piece of the puzzle in giving students a good foundation for learning. Latino students, in particular, are hard-hit by the inequity.


WHY IT MATTERS
  • Unlike other big-city school districts, Chicago does not provide full-day kindergarten across the board, shortchanging some children as they make the transition to formal schooling. Latino students are most likely to be affected.
  • Experts are placing more emphasis on the transition to kindergarten as a crucial point in children’s education. CPS is in the process of implementing an assessment system that provides information to kindergarten teachers about what their students know when they walk in the door.
  • Developing literacy skills is a crucial goal of kindergarten, setting the foundation for children to learn to read fluently by 3rd grade. But high mobility is a problem in the district, and the wide range of literacy approaches used by schools could leave some children behind if they move from school to school.

The district does not have a policy to provide full-day kindergarten across the board, and the available data on kindergarten programs is sketchy and inaccurate. So it’s unclear exactly how many schools are in the same situation as Ashe. (CPS officials refused to provide a list showing which schools do not have full-day programs, and at press time, had not responded to Catalyst Chicago’s two-month-old Freedom of Information Act request.)

But compared to other big-city districts, it’s clear that Chicago is outside the norm: New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other cities, each provide full-day programs for all children. Meanwhile, advocacy organizations, such as the Foundation for Child Development, are calling for a new standard: mandatory, full-day kindergarten for all children.

The transition to kindergarten is rocky for CPS youngsters in other ways, too. The attendance rate is lower in kindergarten than in any other elementary grade, which also keeps students from realizing the full benefit of a good start to school.  Kindergarten teachers could make the transition easier, but they typically do not have critical information on children’s school readiness and family background, which would help them do so. (See stories on pages 8 and 12.)

For years, CPS has covered the cost of full-day kindergarten at 131 schools, most recently with help from federal stimulus money that will run out at the end of the fiscal year. But there is no way for schools with half-day classes, or schools that have been paying for full-day programs out of discretionary funds, to access the money.

The district’s practice dates back to two initiatives (one more than a decade old, and one from the years under former CEO Arne Duncan) that provided money to schools that, at the time, did not offer full-day or four-hour programs, says CPS kindergarten coordinator Joyce Davidson.

As a result, the kindergarten landscape is a hodgepodge. A Catalyst analysis of state and CPS data shows:

  • Among the 131 schools that receive district funding for full-day programs, 18 have less than 50 percent low-income students. The list also includes 15 of the district’s 23 majority-white, higher-performing neighborhood and magnet elementary schools.
  • Budget cuts and enrollment fluctuations have made it more difficult for schools that foot the bill for full-day kindergarten.
  • The CPS website gives contradictory and out-of-date information about the number and school location of full-day classes in the district, according to calls by Catalyst to many of the schools.
  • State data from fall 2007 for CPS show that Latino students were more than three times as likely as African-American students to be in half-day programs: 32 percent compared to 9 percent, respectively. Data for more recent years are inaccurate, indicating that every CPS student is in a full-day kindergarten program, which is not the case. (A state board spokeswoman said districts self-report the data.)

Among charter schools, full-day kindergarten is the standard, and it is a draw for parents. Outside fundraising often helps cover the cost.

“They do it because they think intervention in kindergarten is a valuable way to allocate resources and get students up to speed,” says Andrew Broy, the director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “In Chicago especially, many [students] come without exposure to literacy and numeracy at least at some basic level.”

More time ensures that children get more exposure to new information, time to work with it and time to learn new strategies for applying their knowledge, says Brenda Eiland-Williford, director of program and curriculum at the Ounce of Prevention Fund’s Educare early childhood center. Educare is giving its preschool graduates who enroll as infants the opportunity to attend University of Chicago charter schools, which offer full-day kindergarten.

Research and assessment data show that, in particular, children from less affluent families “need more time to be involved in educational experiences,” Eiland-Williford says. “They don’t get it when they leave school.”

In fall 2009, administrators at Ashe initially planned to operate a full-day program. The teacher (not Hamilton) “felt like the students really needed full-day and would be cheated to have a half-day,” Ferrell notes. But the class ballooned to nearly 50 students—“It was unmanageable,” Ferrell recalls—and like this year, the school had to create two half-day sessions instead.

Pleas to central office for money to support a full-day program, from the school and from parents at School Board meetings, were unsuccessful.

Parent Paul Norman points out that children pay the price by “not getting a whole education.” Norman says the half-day class is tough on him too: He is a single father who works a night shift, and finds it impossible to sleep for more than a few hours at a stretch because he must drop off and pick up his daughter, Kahniyah, within a short time frame.

Another parent, Tiesha Walker, points out that the schedule makes it difficult to get to know other parents.  “As soon as they went to half-day, it was hard because [children have] different people picking them up and dropping them off.”

Walker lost touch with parents who stopped bringing their children to Ashe when the school went to half-day. She stayed, but had to find a child care provider who could watch her son and drop him off at school three days a week. Now she works from home, making the schedule more manageable. 

With a $700 million-plus budget deficit on the horizon and federal stimulus money running out, full-day programs paid for by the district may be in jeopardy. Among the schools that could lose out is Belding Elementary, a racially diverse school in Irving Park on the North Side.

Principal Heather Yutzy estimates that it would cost $40,000 to $45,000 a year to pick up the tab for one full-day class—and Belding has two. The money would have to come from the school’s Title I discretionary funds, which also cover teacher training and extra classroom materials. In a worst-case scenario, Yutzy says she’d try to foot the bill but is not sure she would be able cover it.

At Belding, 80 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. While most CPS parents are lower-income or working-class and sorely in need of full-day kindergarten, Yutzy says some wealthier parents who have the option of staying home with children are less enthused about it.

The kindergarten students at Belding get plenty of literacy activity as well as time for “extras,” including Arabic instruction, art and physical education. They also have more time to develop social and emotional skills.

The daily schedule includes time for a class meeting; literacy activities focused on word structure and reading sight words; independent writing time; an hour for small-group reading instruction and reading centers, where students do small-group literacy activities like silent reading and working with magnetic letters to spell words; a read-aloud by the teacher; math and social studies; and “choose time,” when students can pick what they want to do.

On an unseasonably warm early-spring day, gym teacher Stacey Hale lets her students run wild around the playground. She explains that after the children finished a fitness walk around the block, the warm weather prompted her to give them some unstructured time outside and a break from the hula-hoop unit they’re working on in class.

“Everyone needs a breath of fresh air,” Hale says, showing the children how to use the playground’s zipline (a device that lets them zoom through the air holding on to a bar attached to a cord), offering them high-fives as they get ready to go down the slide, and hugging anyone who falls down. She gives a push to children on the swings, then responds to the cries of a scared boy who’s gotten stuck on top of the jungle gym.

One scene shows how children are developing critical social skills. A crying girl, being comforted by her friends, seeks shelter under the equipment. One boy loudly accuses another of hitting her. “You don’t hit a girl,” he says. “It was an accident,” the suspect insists.
Hale points out: “They are great listeners. They are really respectful of each other.”

Later, during Arabic instruction, the students learn an alphabet song and listen to their teacher read a folktale about Aladdin in English—in other words, extra literacy enrichment.

By later in the spring, they are following directions the teacher gives in Arabic, and they are beginning to learn to read in the language—matching characters with sounds to form words.

At Ashe Elementary, classes run just two and a half hours a day, not including time for meals. Students get an hour of gym, music and library up to three times a week, which means that on some days, there’s just 90 minutes left to cram in small-group reading instruction and math, as well as the occasional science and social studies lesson.

One fall morning a few weeks into the year, Hamilton has her students sit down for breakfast. “Quickly get a couple bites,” she tells the class. Some of the children gnaw on pears as if they are drumsticks.

“I’m going to call you by table so you can throw your trash away, whether we’re finished or not,” Hamilton says. “You have to come on time so you can get breakfast in. We have a lot to learn, and a lot to do.”

Besides time for extras, a full-day program would give Hamilton’s students more time for practice on basics such as paying attention in class. Plus, Hamilton would get more opportunity to reinforce her expectations through repetition.

“I have to put a lot of stock in my kids,” Hamilton says. “I’m not going to worry about what the parents are going to do. I’ve got to help the children help themselves. You just cannot tell them (once), and think they’re going to get it. They need a lot.”

Hamilton estimates that when breakfast, lunch and “specials” such as gym and music are taken out, her students get just seven hours a week of instruction—not more than a couple of days of teaching in a full-day class.

The lack of instruction time in a half day, coupled with weeks at the beginning of the year when the class size was too large, has put students behind where they would otherwise be, Hamilton says.

In mid-April, fewer than one-third of her students are working in the 1st-grade primer she uses to get students reading stories of four or five sentences in length. After a year of full-day kindergarten, Hamilton notes, all of them would be reading from the book.

Schools where more than 25 percent of students are English-language learners are more than three times as likely to lack a full-day kindergarten program as schools where fewer than 5 percent are English learners.

That statistic is troubling because of the proven benefit of full-day programs for these children. A study of ELL students in Los Angeles, published in March in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, found that by 2nd grade, those who attended full-day kindergarten were much less likely to be held back than those who went to half-day programs.

Reyna Hernandez, a research and policy associate at the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago, says that kindergarten—the “bridge” to the K-12 system—plays an important role for Latino students since many of them lack academic school readiness skills.

“To have such a large gap in offerings really is very troublesome,” Hernandez says. “It just compounds the problem.”

Many studies of preschool programs have found that the academic gains children make peter out by 2nd or 3rd grade. Full-day kindergarten could help prevent the loss.

“Transitioning from high-quality early childhood into high-quality K-3 really makes a difference,” Hernandez says. “If that’s not happening, we’re losing the effects we got earlier on.”

The same demographic forces that make it tough to provide enough preschool slots for Latino children are also at work when it comes to kindergarten, Hernandez says. “From 2000 to 2010, the Latino [student] population grew by 32.5 percent. It’s a question of where our schools are located,” she says.

The dearth of full-day kindergarten might even keep some families from enrolling their children at all, Hernandez theorizes—leaving children to enter 1st grade without any school experience.

One compromise is for schools to offer two four-hour kindergarten classes per day—not a full school day, but longer than a half-day program. Edwards Elementary Principal Judith Sauri says this solution has worked at her school in Archer Heights, where enrollment has ballooned to almost 1,500 students in recent years.

But many principals, according to Sauri, are reluctant to operate four-hour classes because the school building must remain open longer, incurring extra costs for administrative staff and security guards as well as longer hours for the principal.

Given the scarcity of preschool slots in Latino neighborhoods, Sauri points out that some principals already use kindergarten classrooms after the regular school day for so-called “third-shift” preschools—an option they would have to scrap.

Sauri is seeking permission from the district to use space at the mothballed Hearst Branch building for a full-day kindergarten. But she says the space may end up going to a charter school instead.

Lagging attendance is another problem in CPS kindergartens. Citywide, the kindergarten attendance rate last school year was 93.4 percent, lower than any other K-8 grade.

A number of principals contacted by Catalyst blamed half-day kindergarten programs for their attendance problems, saying a short day causes parents to devalue kindergarten and creates difficulties with transportation.

At dozens of schools, a substantial number of kindergarteners missed almost a month of school: 128 schools had at least one in five students miss 18 or more days—more than 10 percent of the year. Just 67 schools had that many 1st- graders miss that many days.

In comparison, national data show that one in 10 kindergarten and 1st-grade students are absent for at least 10 percent of the school year, says Phyllis Jordan, communications director at Attendance Works, a national advocacy organization.

The academic loss from absences is almost twice as large for low-income children compared to students from families with average incomes. One study found that high absenteeism in kindergarten can wipe out good preparation for school. Students who showed up with strong kindergarten readiness scores but then missed a lot of classes “weren’t doing much better than the kids who were not ready when they started kindergarten,” Jordan notes.

Both Ashe and Belding have struggled with attendance, with more than 40 percent of students missing 18 or more days of school in recent years.

At Track E schools like Ashe, school starts at the beginning of August—and students are far more likely to show up late and lose days, weeks or even months of time in school.

“There are many parents that, unfortunately, don’t even think about school before Labor Day,” notes Bonnie Roelle, the district’s Preschool for All coordinator. “There has to be more of a public awareness campaign.”

Kindergarten coordinator Joyce Davidson has tried to address the problem by encouraging schools to hold back-to-school registration events and put out flyers in the neighborhood.
Those efforts didn’t reach Paul Norman, whose daughter Kahniyah enrolled for the first time at Ashe in November.

“Every parent isn’t on top of things like they’re supposed to be,” says Norman, who initially planned to enroll Kahniyah at another school. “Her mom registered her late. I should have taken full responsibility, but I’m a full-time working father, and I’ve got two other kids.”
Norman says the district should do more to publicize the issue.

“You have some parents who have no money,” he said. “They’re not working, maybe they have a messed-up situation. You need to go around and tell them their child needs to go to school on such-and-such a date.”

At New Sullivan Elementary, where half of last year’s kindergarten students missed 18 or more days, Principal Kathy McCoy also points to factors outside school that affect attendance.

“You have some parents who have had some negative experiences in school, they are impacted by lack of jobs, lack of motivation,” says McCoy. “Unfortunately, [sending their children to school] was not a priority for them.”

McCoy says the situation has improved as kindergarten students moved up to 1st grade. She credits 1st-grade teachers who worked hard to connect with parents and provide an environment that children enjoy.

“Until we, as school communities, really begin to look at what’s impacting the whole child, you are going to continue to see a lot of under-performing schools,” she notes.

Sam Barnett contributed to this story.

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