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Kindergarten sure isn't what it used to be.

As young as the students are, they are already working to develop skills for Common Core standards, which is one reason why York Suburban School District is looking into changing its half-day kindergarten program to a full-day program.

On Tuesday night, the district held a public meeting to discuss research with the community and hear feedback on the idea before making its final recommendation to the school board in November. Currently, students in kindergarten attend school for 2½ hours each day. One group of students goes in the morning while another group attends in the afternoon.

Superintendent Shelly Merkle explained that no final decisions have been made or would be made during the meeting. Instead, she said, the gathering was an opportunity to have a discussion to help the committee come to the best decision for the students in the district. Assistant Superintendent Patricia Maloney, Valley View Elementary Principal Tawn Ketterman and Yorkshire Principal Kim Stoltz were in attendance as members of the committee exploring the option.

York Suburban School District isn't the only entity stressing the importance of early childhood education. In January, the Pre-K for PA campaign hosted a news conference at York Day Nursery to discuss the importance of a solid pre-K education for students. They released a report that detailed how investment in pre-kindergarten and early childhood education can benefit students, schools and communities.

Maloney began the presentation by explaining that a full-day kindergarten program would allow students more time to grasp the state's Common Core standards, which were made more rigorous in recent years, and to work on their social skills.

Maloney pointed to research that found students in a full-day kindergarten program show greater reading and math gains among other educational gains for low-income and minority students, though Merkle later admitted that the gains eventually taper off. However, Merkle said the social and emotional gains experienced by students in full-day programs are a great difference from those in half-day programs.

Ketterman presented a survey of parents in the district. Of those who responded, 80 percent would have participated in full-day kindergarten if it had been offered. For parents with a future kindergartner in the district, 89 percent responded that they would prefer a full-day program.

The No. 1 positive aspect of full-day kindergarten that Stoltz pointed to was the increased amount of time with the children, which she stressed would be used not to add more content matter but to delve deeper into concepts already being explored in the half-day program. A tentative schedule for a full-day program was presented, and it included more time spent on writing, guided reading, math and more subjects.

In addition, Stoltz and Ketterman explained that the lessons would include a variety of angles to learn a concept. For example, 80 minutes would be spent on math in a full-day program compared to the 20 minutes spent on the subject now. Students wouldn't be sitting in a chair doing math problems for 80 minutes, though. Instead, they might count jumping jacks or other exercises before switching to another math-based activity.

Merkle stressed that during the 2½ hour day, kids are rushed from one activity to the next with very little downtime. A full-day program would allow kids to learn at a slower pace and allow the kindergarten teachers to really work to the level of each child, she argued.

After the presentation, parents and community members had the opportunity to ask questions and voice opinions for the committee to consider. Many concerns revolved around the cost of the full-day program compared to the half-day, which is significantly cheaper, Merkle admitted. She didn't give facts or figures at the meeting, but she said the district would not move forward with the decision if it was not economically feasible.

"It's an expensive endeavor," Merkle said. "Our question is, 'Can we afford it?' The flip of that, though, is can we afford not to do this?" She estimated that switching to full-day kindergarten might mean doubling the kindergarten staff.

Community members were mixed on their feelings. Some parents said that a full-day program worked better for their kids, while others said they were wary of forcing their children to grow up and leave home too quickly. Some parents said their toddlers were already in full-day enrichment programs, so switching from that to a half-day program once the child entered kindergarten could affect the child's development.

Erin Morris, a mother in the district who has a son who would be affected by this decision next fall, said she is in favor of a full-day program because she's seen the effects in her job as a behavioral specialist at Philhaven. As a working mother, she said that if the district decides not to recommend a full-day program, she will need to look into a learning enrichment program or a caretaker for when her son is not in school.

"I think it provides more opportunity for play-based learning," Morris said. "They can have more downtime, make it more fun."

Scott Rentzel, who said he is a middle school teacher in York County, said that full-day kindergarten helps establish a routine and social behavior that is expected of students. He said he sees the effects in his middle school students.

"Kindergarten is a training, a consistency for getting used to the next 12 years of their learning future," he explained. He also said that learning Common Core standards takes time, often more time than parents realize.

Merkle said at the end of the meeting that the comments and suggestions made by parents and community members would be considered by the committee before a recommendation is made to the school board at its November meeting. There is a planning committee meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, and a regular board meeting on at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21. Meetings are typically held in the administration office behind the district's high school.

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