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Parents, Schools Are Learning to Like Full-Day Kindergarten

December 29, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

When Maria Covarrubias talks about the benefits of full-day kindergarten, she speaks from experience. Three of her children attended half-day programs at Daniel Webster Elementary School in Pasadena. Now, her youngest, Matthew, is enrolled in a pilot full-day kindergarten class there.

Gone are the harried lunch hours used for shuttling children from school to an afternoon baby-sitter. Matthew spends 6 1/2 hours in class each day, and his mother, an administrative assistant at a Monrovia CPA firm, marvels at not being a midday chauffeur and not spending $100 a week on child care. "I really enjoy it," she said. But more important, she has watched her son blossom academically, an unexpected result of the longer program, she said.

"He goes a little further than I think the girls did," Covarrubias said. "He has the clearest handwriting. You just have to see it. I think because they write a lot more, that helps him. I think that's what it is."

Kindergarten -- that bastion of ABCs, 123s and the three-hour school day -- is going full-time. Spurred by demographic, academic and sometimes economic factors, states and local school districts are embracing full-day kindergarten at a rapid rate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Kindergarten -- A Dec. 29 article in Section A about plans for full-day kindergartens around the country erred in stating that all of Los Angeles Unified School District's kindergartens are half-day. In fact, kindergarten classes at the Community Magnet School in Bel-Air are in session for the entire school day. In addition, several Los Angeles charter schools, which technically are not part of the district, offer full-day kindergartens.

In 1969, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, most American kindergartners attended shortened, usually half-day programs. Only 11% were in programs considered full-day -- defined as more than four hours but usually closer to six. By 2000, the percentage enrolled in full-day programs had grown to 60%.

The Pasadena school board voted in October for all 24 of its elementary schools to provide full-day kindergarten next fall -- though some pilot programs have already begun. Thirty-three other California districts, including Fresno, Paramount, Las Virgenes and Moorpark, are trying out pilot full-day programs. And a $3.8-billion bond that will go before Los Angeles voters in March includes $100 million to build the facilities necessary for Los Angeles Unified schools to offer full-day kindergarten as soon as possible.

Currently, all 3,013 of Los Angeles Unified's kindergarten classes are half-day. And that, said Los Angeles school board member David Tokofsky, "has got to be up there in terms of being one of the most lame public policies out there."

Tokofsky, whose oldest daughter is enrolled in a half-day program at Eagle Rock Elementary School, said that full-day kindergarten appeals to both ends of the economic spectrum: families who have the means for private school but might be encouraged to enroll, and stay, in public schools; and working parents, who would be better able to take full-time jobs if their children were occupied all day long.

Tokofsky introduced a motion earlier this month that calls on the district to commit itself to full-day kindergarten, regardless of whether the March bond measure succeeds. Tokofsky said the cost of the switch remains under study but that he expects it to be minimal for costs beyond construction of new facilities. The school board is expected to consider the plan next month.

Nationwide, school districts are realizing that offering full-day kindergarten may be their best bet to attract the children of working parents, to fast-track children with limited English skills toward English literacy and to keep students competitive. And they hope that offering the full-day program eventually will bring more enrollment revenues from their states.

The Maryland Legislature voted last year to make all of its kindergartens full-day by 2007. New Mexico has almost completed a five-year plan for all districts statewide to offer it.

"Where it's been implemented, we are getting such favorable results," said Karen Ehlert, New Mexico's full-day kindergarten coordinator. "As kids move into first grade, teachers are astonished at how much the kindergartners can do in comparison to what they could do when there were half-day kindergartens."

Although six states, including New Mexico, offer districts a financial incentive for switching from half- to full-day kindergarten, California makes no such distinction. In fact, under California law, kindergarten attendance is not even mandatory. But because a major part of school funding is based on the number of students at a school on any given day, any boost in enrollment would increase the amount of money that a California district receives.

An internal Los Angeles Unified School District memo prepared earlier this year by Supt. Roy Romer pointed out that 5,000 fewer students are enrolled in district kindergartens than in first grade. With full-day kindergarten, that gap, said the memo, "would be expected to significantly decrease."

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