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Full-day kindergarten data points to a successful program

January 19, 2011
In just four months, Gilford Elementary School's full-day kindergarten pilot program has already shown signs of promise.

At a recent School Board meeting, it was noted that over 85 percent of the "codified" or special needs children within the full-day program have already exceeded the average mean achievement scores of students in the half-day program.

GES Principal Dr. Jack Billings confirmed that full-day kindergarten data points to a pattern of success, and said he hopes to see full-day kindergarten fully implemented into the school structure by next September.

Billings explained that the full-day kindergarten program came into effect in order to test two theories: that exposure to peer mentors and full-day instruction would contribute to special needs students in terms of academic gain, and that academic gain by all students would be significantly greater.

"We asked, is it possible to mitigate this gap for special needs children in full-day kindergarten? We also asked how peers serving as mentors influenced the students … and also to see if mentors can double in achievement," said Billings. "The full day program does make a significant difference."

GES staff members closely involved with the full-day kindergarten program and its progress can offer positive support to both these theories.

Billings said he has stood behind the idea of a full-day kindergarten program for a long time in hopes that students could learn to read independently, as soon as capable, and as a result, students could then start to direct their own learning.

While the full-day proposal came about to benefit all kindergarten special needs children and allow them extended time to absorb the same amount of learning material, peer mentors within the classroom have also exceeded expectations.

When the pilot program first started this school year, after kindergarten screenings were assessed, it was clear that this particular kindergarten class, a mix of mentors and the special needs students, would be three months behind the achievement levels of the average students in half-day kindergarten in terms of development.

Billings said the pilot program did in fact start out three months behind, yet after collecting data four months into the program, he and his kindergarten staff members were pleasantly surprised to see that the full-day students have closed this developmental gap and progressed farther than their half-day peers.

According to Billings, full-day students have achieved a rate 106 percent greater than grade level peers in mathematics, and a 120 percent faster rate in reading levels.

Billings added that this data in no way reflects on different staff training, methods, or literacy programs used in the classroom. The data simply states that more time benefits a student's academic achievement, and that the full day program works to offer an extended version of regular half-day classes.

He explained there are only two differences between the two programs, first being that the full-day program is longer, and second that the full-day class would possess the largest class number, and also the largest percentage of students who tend to struggle throughout school.

While the full day kindergarten program is promising, Billings noted that half day students are also making noticeable improvements thanks to a new method of math instruction and a more "aggressive" beginning literacy program.

The progress of the full-day kindergarten pilot program has support from much research on the subject, although Billings said research claims by third or fourth grade, the gains of full-day kindergarten disappear.

He pointed out that while this research may or may not be true; if full-day kindergarten students are still able to close the gap before they reach a higher grade level, then really the success of the intensive program has already done its magic by third or fourth grade.

"The gaps may never have been closed, and students wouldn't get there to begin with (without this extra support of a full day). These children would have been climbing a hill constantly," said Billings.

By the looks of the halls, staff members have reported that full day students have also adapted to their new schedules quickly and appear as energetic and joyful as their peers in half-day classes.

As the proposed budget for next school year stands, it also looks as though full-day kindergarten could be implemented into the GES structure and here to stay. By keeping students throughout the day, a mid-day bus route would be eliminated and would actually save the district in transportation costs up to $22,000.

For GES, space is also not the case, and a sufficient amount of teachers and classrooms are already in place to help implement full-day kindergarten, with the exception of a few tweaks.

Billings said the first grade team would have to prepare for an influx of incoming full day kindergarteners by providing the maximum level of curriculum. By second grade, this would already be established as the new way to progress through various grade levels.

With the start of full-day kindergarten, also comes the start of an "even playing field" for all young, and even struggling, students.

Billings said he also owes the progress of these young students to the dedicated and excited kindergarten staff members.

Donna Finner, GES kindergarten case manager, said she has also seen progress within "identified" or special needs students in full-day kindergarten. Finner attributes this success to the fact that struggling students now have a longer day, which allows for them to receive physical therapy, speech therapy, and so on, yet also allows them time to engage in a regular classroom environment.

With the combination of extra time and the new integration of school wide flex-groups within the classroom, which separate students into smaller, more fitting math and reading groups, it's only a matter of time until the significant improvements shine through, she said.

Full day kindergarten teacher Patti Madore has also noticed the difference. At the start of the school year, she assumed that two of her special needs students in particular would struggle with the full-day program. She was happy to report that four months in, these students are right where they are supposed to be with the other students.

"It's a gift of time. It's not that we are throwing twice as much curriculum at the students, but that we are doing the same curriculum in greater depth," said Madore.

Thanks to more exposure to a full-day classroom, these kindergarten students have gained more independence in their learning abilities and can make more connections through subjects such as math and literacy.

While she emphasized that half-day staff members are doing their jobs just fine, it's always good to know that more learning opportunities are out there.

"Kids now have more of an opportunity to succeed and to grow as learners," said Madore.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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