By Elizabeth Heubeck
With the birth of her first child, Heather Helm was ready to dive headfirst into the job of motherhood. The former park manager quit her full-time job to stay at home with her daughter.
Now, Helm feels as though her plans have been foiled. She recently learned that the Baltimore County Public School system has switched from half-day to full-day kindergarten. Although her daughter isn’t slated to attend kindergarten until September 2010, Helm already is feeling anxious about having to cut short her time at home with her daughter.
“Here I changed my whole life so I could raise my child in a very home-centered environment. I was shocked by the news of all-day kindergarten. I had no idea they were going to do this,” Helm says.
Helm isn’t the only parent concerned about the switch from half-day to full-day kindergarten that is gradually taking place in area school systems. All over Maryland, parents are buzzing about the change that’s sweeping the state.
In 2002, Baltimore County began phasing in full-day kindergarten. This past school year, all kindergartners attending public schools in Baltimore County were enrolled for a full day. Currently, all-day kindergarten is available in each of Maryland’s 24 local public school systems and is likely to become mandatory in the coming years.
Initially, many parents feel that full-day kindergarten is too much school, too soon. Take Eileen Hiebler, a marketing director who has worked a flexible, at-home schedule since her children were born. Last fall, her daughter headed off to kindergarten for the whole day. Prior to the all-day immersion, Hiebler’s daughter had attended preschool just three mornings a week.
“She was our oldest. I’m at home with the children. And we were concerned it was going to be a long day,” notes the Harford County mom.
As Hiebler suspected, initially her daughter would come home from full-day kindergarten exhausted. The bus picked her up at 8:25 a.m. and returned her at 3:30 p.m.
“The month of September was really rough for her,” Hiebler recalls of her daughter who, with a July birthday, was one of the younger kindergartners in her class.
Sticking to an early bedtime routine helped her adjust to the longer school day.
“She was in bed by 7:30 p.m.,” recalls Hiebler.
Early fatigue aside, Hiebler gives full-day kindergarten the thumbs up. Being in an academically and socially stimulating environment all day every day turned out to be a positive experience for her daughter.
“Now, I am an advocate of all-day kindergarten,” Hiebler asserts.
But the next time around, as her son prepares to enter kindergarten, she plans to send him to a five-day-a-week preschool to ease the transition.
A Day Fit for 5-Year-Olds
Parents aren’t alone in their concerns about the effects of full-day school on 5-year-old students. Teachers and administrators care, too. And they want to see students succeed as much as parents do. That’s why they plan accordingly, carefully constructing the day to proceed at an age-appropriate pace.
“Parents need to be reassured that schools have been thinking about how to work out the glitches long before the full day has gone into effect,” says Donna DeVivo, a kindergarten teacher at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.
Public schools that recently switched from half- to full-day kindergarten, or plan to do so in the coming years, won’t be changing the curriculum—they’re simply stretching the amount of time students have to complete it.
Two years ago, teachers in Baltimore County’s half-day kindergarten programs had to cram in all the requisite academics—language arts, reading, writing, and math—in a two-and-a-half-hour day. And schools still tried to squeeze in time for old-fashioned play centers that included favorites such as building blocks and painting easels. Now, that’s changed.
“The schedule that was compressed into a half-day is now all day. We’re giving the same kind of instruction, but with way more time. The basic content hasn’t changed. It just gives teachers time to expand on it, and kids more time to practice,” says Sharon Hoffman, early childhood supervisor for Baltimore County’s Office of Curriculum Instruction.
Balancing Work and Rest
But what about the kids? Many parents can’t help but wonder if the children are too tired to work in the afternoon.
To address that issue, most all-day kindergartens offer daily rest periods. When Youth’s Benefit Elementary School went to full-day two years ago, DeVivo fully expected her students to sleep heavily during their allotted afternoon rest time. She was in for a surprise.
“Most of them act like it’s a slumber party. They don’t want to rest,” DeVivo says. However, the state law requires 20 minutes of rest daily, so public schools do carve out that time in the afternoon for students who need down time.
Some kindergarten teachers give their students rest time in the beginning of the year, and then gradually wean them from it as the year progresses.
“Through November or December, my students have an afternoon rest of between 30 to 45 minutes,” describes Robin Berg, a kindergarten teacher at Friends School in Baltimore.
The routine includes sleeping bags, pillows, and listening to lullabies.
“Some just lie and listen. Some really sleep,” she says. “They all like the quiet time.”
Even when kindergartners aren’t resting in the afternoon, they typically get a break from the more academic work that takes place in the morning. Most kindergarten programs use the afternoon to expose students to the extras that often cannot be squeezed into a half-day—including physical education, art, music, and library.
“We give them time for music, and movement. They’ve just got to get those wiggles out,” Hoffman says.
While full-day kindergarten remains in its infancy for many Baltimore area schools, the feedback thus far—from parents, teachers, and administrators—gives it a glowing report card.
As for kindergarten teachers accustomed to working in a full-day environment, they couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“Everything we do, all day long, has a purpose,” Berg says. BC
Steps to Prepare Your Child for Full-Day Kindergarten
Kindergarten teachers are on the front line of knowing where their students need the most help during the school day. Casually surveyed, here are their suggestions for parents.
Set up an early bedtime routine and stick to it.
Encourage your child to perform self-help tasks at home, such as dressing oneself and opening snack packages.
Get your child into a regular meal pattern, rather than allowing all-day grazing.
Be positive about school and all the fun things your child will be learning.
A Glimpse at the Pros and Cons of Full-Day Kindergarten
Greater continuity and time with students.
More time for academic instruction.
More time for thoughtful play—play activities with specific, planned purposes.
Greater flexibility for parent volunteers during the day.
Better preparation for the structure and curriculum of first grade.
Space constraints in schools that are already at capacity.
Source: Full-Day Kindergarten: Exploring an Option for Extended Learning, a report by Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, a private nonprofit group in Portland that provides research-based assistance to improve educational systems and learning, and sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. To read the entire report, visit www.nwrel.org/request.
Half-Day Kindergarten is Still Available
Despite all the good news about public schools moving to full-day kindergarten programs, some parents still would prefer to enroll their child in a half-day program. The good news for them is that half-day kindergarten programs are available in many of the area’s private and nonpublic schools.
The current directory of local Private, Parochial & Independent Schools is available on this website, under Directories. Also, in the upcoming November 2008 issue of Baltimore’s Child, check out the updated 2008 Private, Parochial & Independent Schools, which will indicate if the kindergarten programs listed are half- or full-day.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. September 2008