Butler School District recently became the fourth in the county to offer a full-day kindergarten program to its youngest students.
The benefits of a full-day kindergarten program are many, according to school officials who have full-day programs, from giving more time for instruction to getting children used to the daily routines of school life.
“The most observable benefits include increased academic and social development,” said Alfonso Angelucci, Slippery Rock superintendent.
Slippery Rock, Karns City and Freeport have full-day kindergarten programs. Kindergarten is not required for children in Pennsylvania, but few children enter first grade without a public or private preschool program of some sort.
The reason is reading.
Julie Hopp, Butler director of curriculum, cited reading skills as one of the benefits of a full-day kindergarten program. Other school officials noted that as well.
“Research had indicated over years that children who are in kindergarten full time or a strong preschool program perform better by third grade in reading,” said Tracy Vitale, Seneca Valley superintendent. “That's a major benchmark in education. We want them to be reading and reading well by third grade.”
Karns City Superintendent Eric Ritzert said while the quality of the time spent in school is more important than the quantity, there are definite benefits to a full-day kindergarten program. Karns City has had a full-day kindergarten program since the 2005-06 school year.
“Effective classroom strategies, instruction, assessment and relationships can be efficiently developed in both a half-day and a full-day program,” he said. “One of the benefits of having full-day kindergarten is that it allows the time to provide more enrichment activities for those students ready for the challenge and targeted remedial activities to those who might be behind.”
It also allows teachers to focus more on the individual learning needs of students, Ritzert said. Subsequently, parents are supportive of the full-day program and students enjoy their experience in school, he said.
Slippery Rock has had full-day kindergarten for 11 years, Angelucci said, and parents are happy with the program because it better prepares their children for subsequent primary grades.
“It allows the kindergarten teachers more time to assess student development, identify strengths and weaknesses, and give first grade teachers a better profile of the students with whom they will be teaching the following year,” he said.
Butler's full-day program will have five special periods per week, lunch and a rest period where students can nap or have quiet time, Hopp said. There will also still be a half-day program in the morning for families that already made those arrangements for their children. This year Butler had about 400 kindergarten students.
Seneca Valley has about 500 children enrolled in its half-day kindergarten program, Vitale said. They have 28 sections taught by 14 teachers in morning and afternoon sessions.
Seneca Valley students benefit from the glut of private schools and strong preschool and day care providers in the area that can fill the gap in the need for a full-day kindergarten program. The elementary principals at Seneca Valley meet twice yearly with preschool and day care providers to prepare the children for school.
“The issue is the children that can't afford to go to preschool,” she said.
The district also has Head Start programs for low-income families, but Vitale said she worries for those children in the middle who can't do either. It is one of her long-term goals to develop a full-day kindergarten program, but for now they don't have the classroom space.
“It's not that we haven't done it because of the money,” Vitale said. “None of our buildings can accommodate it. We'd need 14 more classrooms at minimum.”
The district calculated the cost of a full-day program several years ago at around $1.5 million for staffing such a program, Vitale said. Although there are about 500 students in the kindergarten program now, Vitale said she'd expect there to be more if they went to a full-day program as children who are currently in private or parochial full-day programs may come back at Seneca Valley.
“What I know is that the research has been compelling that we should have a full-day kindergarten. The only way for me to do that is more space,” Vitale said.
She hopes to have that space potentially if a new K-to-6 school building is built to replace the Evans City Elementary and Middle School, as the school board is currently considering.