Half-full or half-empty?

All-day kindergarten at the center of debate in Southwest schools

Lake Harriet Community School PTA President Allison Stevens wanted her son Will to attend full-day kindergarten this year. She believes that more time spent in class acquiring the basics of education – learning numbers, colors, shapes and the alphabet – would be better for him than the traditional half-day of schooling.

“I’m attracted to more time spent in the classroom and more time spent learning. Half-day teachers do a good job getting a lot of curriculum in,” but, Stevens added, a full day of instruction would give her son “more time for recess, specialist time and important skills that kids learn in school.”

But Will Stevens is one of the kids who didn’t make it into the one full-day class of the six kindergarten classes offered by Lake Harriet. To make up for it, his mother relies on the education-based child-care program Minneapolis Kids, also at the Linden Hills school, to fill the gap.

In Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), nearly every elementary school has at least one all-day kindergarten class. Half-day classes are almost three hours long, while full-day programs are six hours and 15 minutes. In an average kindergarten class, there are about 26 spots.

Although exact data isn’t available regarding how many parents choose all-day kindergarten as opposed to half-day, it’s generally agreed that at least twice as many parents who want half-day prefer full day kindergarten.

The district doesn’t have any information about the lengths of full-day waiting lists. Each school is responsible for its own list. At North’s Hale Elementary School, for example, there were 121 requests for full-day kindergarten but only 24 slots, while at Whittier International Elementary School, there are 17 kids waiting.

The disappointment among some Lake Harriet parents is so great that some prefer to see its lone all-day kindergarten class done away with so that all families get equal treatment. Others, however, suggest adding an all-day kindergarten class to a nearby school such as Armatage as a way to alleviate Harriet’s all-day space shortage.

Full-day kindergarten was instituted in the district in the 1990s as a way to cope with the low numbers of students deemed ready for kindergarten. Only 38 percent of incoming kindergarteners, for instance, were ready for kindergarten in 2001, according to Craig Vana, associate superintendent for Southwest schools.

“It’s extremely important for kids of poverty who don’t have the same advantages, to make them engage and compete,” he said. “We had to have another strategy to assure more would be prepared.”

Half-day kindergarten is recommended for kids who have difficulty separating from parents (and vice versa), need a nap longer than 30 minutes or simply enjoy being home with relatives, said Lyndale Principal Ossie Brooks James. Yet full-day kindergarten is highly recommended for students lacking “significant school experiences,” she added.

According to a study by Indiana University of Pennsylvania, kids in full-day kindergarten have higher reading scores when they advance to early grades, score higher on tests in general, economically disadvantaged kindergartners have greater progress in social skills, and full-day students have higher self-esteem and independence than their peers in half-day classes.

And figuring out which kids will get into the sought-after all-day classes is an ongoing problem at Lake Harriet. Southwest schools are popular with parents citywide for their quality programs and traditions of high achievement. And as a result, the schools often are overcrowded.

Southwest schools tend to put less emphasis on full-day kindergarten than do schools struggling with greater numbers of kids in poverty that need to raise achievement and boost enrollment.

These schools – such as North Minneapolis’ Shingle Creek – often make full-day classes a priority. Shingle Creek offers two full-day kindergarten classes and no half-day classes.

Few students attending Shingle Creek have had any preschool; kids start the year with some of the lowest scores in the district, but by winter they’re ranked fifth highest, said Principal Karen Erickson. She attributes this gain partly to the all-day kindergarten experience.

Similarly, Jefferson Community School at 1200 W. 26th St., provides exclusively all-day kindergarten classes as a way to boost achievement and attendance.

“The year that the district decided we would have one full day we had such interest and saw how much the children gained from a full day that the staff voted to devote funding to providing all full-day programs,” said Jefferson Principal Heather Vicks. “With so much curriculum being crammed into kindergarten these days, the school days are much more relaxed than if we were trying to do it all in a half-day program.”

It’s for those kinds of reasons that Stevens and other parents want the all-day experience for their children.

“I would say we were disappointed we didn’t get all-day kindergarten for [Will],” said Stevens, “but that it did not affect our decision to send him to Lake Harriet. We were making a decision about the best school for him, not necessarily just a kindergarten program.”

“The district would love to have all-day kindergarten for all kids, although the reality is that some parents would still like to have half-day. So that option still has to be there,” Vana said. “There’s not enough resources to do it until the state steps forward. I think schools have done a good job of offering at least one full-day classroom in every school. That’s where it’s at until funding issues are resolved.”