Lisa Olson was relaxing poolside on a family vacation when her cellphone started vibrating incessantly, disrupting the calm.
The frantic calls came from friends and neighbors in Mokena, irate about a February school board decision to roll back all-day kindergarten to a half-day as a way of cutting costs.
“Why would you want to go backward?” asked Olson, a mother of three, including 4-year-old Gavin. “Did anyone really think about how losing that extra time would affect our children?”
Mokena’s Summit Hill School District 161 quickly backed off the decision, but it is hardly the only community to debate the merits of a full day for kindergartners. Districts in Naperville and Wilmette recently grappled with adding hours to their programs, part of a growing movement to strengthen the early years as the foundation for lifelong learning.
Parents and school officials are asking: Is 2.5 hours enough to adequately prepare students for first grade? Or are we pushing kids too hard? And even if the gains are indisputable, does an expanded program make sense when even affluent districts are struggling to contain costs?
Most states require districts to offer at least a half-day program, the nation’s model since the 1930s. Only 12 states mandate providing a full-day program, according to the Education Commission of the States. In Illinois, about 1,650 schools provide full-day programs, 332 offer half days and 338 offer both, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Research shows students benefit from the extra hours and that it helps level the playing field for kids from low-income households. In a 2005 Rutgers University study, children enrolled in full-day kindergarten demonstrated “significantly stronger” academic gains than their peers in half-day programs.
Beyond curriculum, the case for the all-day program is made by families who say that getting out of school at 11:30 a.m. is out of sync with their lives. The majority of parents are unavailable to leave their jobs midday to pick up their youngsters, leaving them to either quit work or cobble together expensive and unwieldy child-care arrangements.
Finally, say advocates, the majority of 5-year-olds have already attended preschool, so scaling back time interrupts the continuity for kids accustomed to six-hour days.
“You have to think of building on a continuum,” said Christine Maxwell of the Erikson Institute, a child-development graduate school. “Making a full day the new standard gives children opportunities for more individualized attention … especially when it comes to early language and prereading skills.”
But the cost of hiring more teachers and aides and paying for training and space just doesn’t fit the current fiscal climate, say administrators. Over the past three years, the state’s education budget has been slashed by $650 million.
“It is difficult for educators to argue against increased learning time, but the value of full-day kindergarten must be balanced against other competing school needs,” said Superintendent Steve Griesbach, of Gower School District, which serves Burr Ridge and Willowbrook and does not have a full-day program. “At a time when most schools find there aren’t enough resources to do everything, we must make thoughtful choices about what is best for kids.”
In Mokena — which offers full-day and half-day programs — kindergarten seemed like a logical place to cut costs. The plan proved so contentious that the board voted to close an elementary school instead.
Superintendent Barbara Rains said she “couldn’t discount” that the issue won’t be revisited.
To Olson, any tinkering would be regressive: “This should have been a last resort … not the first,” she said. “Having a full-day kindergarten is one of the selling points for our community … and makes us competitive.”
In two other high-performing communities, Wilmette School District 39 and Naperville School District 203, kindergarten is offered only half-day, and the issue has moved to the forefront.
Wilmette considered adding an extended-day, fee-based enrichment program. “It seemed like a creative solution because it wouldn’t deplete our resources,” said district spokeswoman Holly Goldin. But no one could confirm residents’ demand — especially because the park district offers a similar program — so any expansion was put on a back burner until 2013.
In contrast, officials in Naperville are strongly committed to adding a full-day program. The proposal has met with some resistance, though, because it is intertwined with changing school boundaries to create more space.
Dee Dauber isn’t directly affected, but that hasn’t stopped her from wanting a full-day program. The Naperville resident’s opinions are based on the experiences of her two daughters. The oldest — now in high school — attended a half-day program, while her youngest, a fourth-grader, had a full day.
“I could see the difference in what teachers could accomplish with those extra hours,” Dauber said. “It benefited the kids not only academically, but socially … so when they got to first grade, they were truly ready. It should be an option, if the budget allows.”
The price tag is what Kevin Sawatzky, a father of three in District 203, is worried about, along with the potential disruption, he said.
“Some people don’t like the idea of paying for other people’s child care,” said Sawatzky, whose wife is a stay-at-home mom. “For me, though, the concern is that we’re spending a bunch of money and we’re moving a bunch of kids. I’d like to hear some alternatives.”
But to Maxwell, from the Erickson Institute, the evidence is clear, regardless of the community. To sustain the positive benefits of attending preschool, full-day kindergarten should be offered to all children.
“It means more opportunities to read, ask questions, do more problem-solving … and encourages the kind of open-ended inquiry that often gets shut out in a shortened day,” she said. “Really, it’s about the gift of time.”