Half-day or full-day kindergarten? Debate rages over benefits of longer learning day

Isabelle Alberto, 5, of Woodstock walks into her kindergarten classroom Thursday during the first day of class at Verda Dierzen Early Learning Center in Woodstock.
Isabelle Alberto, 5, of Woodstock walks into her kindergarten classroom Thursday during the first day of class at Verda Dierzen Early Learning Center in Woodstock.

On the first day of school in Woodstock District 200, 35-year-old Michaela Roark helps her 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, place her book bag on a hook outside her kindergarten classroom.

Charlotte attended one year of half-day pre-kindergarten at District 200’s Verda Dierzen Early Learning Center in preparation for this year’s full-day kindergarten program.

Roark said she selfishly wished Charlotte only had a half-day kindergarten program.

“Just because I work a lot of nights, so [daytime] is my day with her,” Roark said.

From an education perspective, however, Roark is glad that Charlotte is in a full-day kindergarten program because there’s more academic benefit.

“You don’t get a lot done in two and a half hours,” Roark said. “I think she’ll learn more in a full day. I like the routine of having so many things going on throughout the day. She’ll have recess, she’ll have art, she’ll have music. All those things.”

However, there are a mixture of half-day and full-day kindergarten programs around McHenry County, and whether a full-day program has more of an academic benefit is open to debate.

Sue Wings is the superintendent of District 36, where there is half-day kindergarten.

She said the benefit of full-day kindergarten is it allows more time for teachers to work with students to reach standards.

“However, it doesn’t mean that the students are necessarily able to sustain academically,” Wings said. “It depends on the rigor of the program.”

She added that full-day kindergarten also helps students read sooner.

Wings also said students who have half-day kindergarten tend to catch up by the time they reach the end of second grade, and the “playing field levels out.”

Whether a district has half- or full-day kindergarten sometimes depends on whether it has the available staffing and money necessary to run a full-day program, Wings said.

Sometimes districts can offer only half-day kindergarten because of space constraints, such as in District 15, which has wanted to expend its elementary school buildings to go from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten, among other reasons.

In District 200, this is the seventh year there has been full-day kindergarten.

“We felt it was better for younger learners to have a consistent schedule and less transition throughout their day,” said Tricia Bogott, the principal at Verda. “They know every day, they will have a consistent lunch ... at school. They know their classroom schedule, do things in a certain routine.”

Having a half day might mean changes from day to day of where the child might go after school, such as to a babysitter or a friend’s house, Bogott said.

Nancy Reczek, the assistant superintendent or Early Childhood & Elementary Education, said a lot of kindergartners are coming in with a year or two of preschool under their belts and are “ready for learning.”

Also with Common Core standards coming in, it requires students to have a broader and deeper understanding of subject matter, Reczek said.

Woodstock District 200 has many students who are English language learners, and they may not catch up by second grade like other half-day students, Reczek added.

“I’m not confident that would be the case that all students would get caught up,” Reczek said. “We have a few more variables in student population.”

Bogott added that not all students go to preschool or pre-kindergarten and “going to five full days [a week] is a jump.”

Huntley District 158 has full-day kindergarten. Parents have the option of placing their children in half-day kindergarten, but “99 percent” opt for the full-day program, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Michelle George said.

The district went to full-day programs during the 2006-07 school year.

Having a full day allows for more time to work on traditional subjects, and time to do physical education, music and art as well, George said.

“We wanted to provide a richer curriculum to the students and have more opportunities to challenge and build that stronger foundation,” George said.

Jason Larry is the school board president at Cary District 26, where both half-day and full-day kindergarten is offered. However, for parents to get their children into the full-day program, they need to be selected in a lottery.

Larry has three daughters, and his youngest was selected to be in full-day kindergarten, he said.

“We saw a huge benefit in her ... and how it prepared her for first grade,” Larry said. “I’m a fan of it.”

Larry said the reading, arithmetic and comprehension skills of his youngest daughter, who is about to enter the second grade, were further along compared with her older sisters.

He added that if the district had enough classroom capacity for all full-day kindergarten and was able to afford it, it would be something he would support.

“I’ll be a huge supporter of doing it,” Larry said. “I’ve witnessed the value it could create.”

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