Half-day kindergarten long the norm. Why Modesto schools moving to keep kids all day

Ceres kindergarten teacher talks about full day program

Kindergarten teacher Erica Tornquist talks about the benefits of a full day program on Monday March 4, 2019 at Atkinson Elementary School in Ceres, Calif.
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Kindergarten teacher Erica Tornquist talks about the benefits of a full day program on Monday March 4, 2019 at Atkinson Elementary School in Ceres, Calif.

The kiddos with the five-minute attention spans keep teacher Erica Tornquist on her toes for six hours a day.

Tornquist leads her 20 students in fun exercises to get them started with reading and writing, numbers and learning about the world.

When the students are not glued to activities at their desks, some lessons are taught through singing and dancing. It’s kindergarten, after all. Before long, the kids head outside for some recreation on the playground at Adkison Elementary School in Ceres.

Tornquist, a former first-grade teacher, has never taught traditional half-day kindergarten, a program offered in less than 30 percent of California schools today. “I would not have it any other way,” said the teacher, who feels a half day would shortchange the students.

Ceres Unified School District began a conversion to full-day kindergarten in 2008, based on research touting benefits such as higher reading scores in early grades, more individual instruction and progress with social skills. It’s the model for Ceres schools today.

Modesto City Schools has a firm proposal for changing to full-day kindergarten in the fall. Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked for $750 million to make it the statewide norm, and a proposed bill in Sacramento would make full day a requirement of schools by the 2021-22 school year.

MCS officials reached tentative agreement on the all-day schedule with the Modesto Teachers Association on Thursday and are working out facility and staffing considerations.

MCS Superintendent Sara Noguchi said it appears the schedule can be implemented in August at the 22 elementary schools in the school district.

Proponents say kindergartners, with a full day of instruction, get a strong start on literacy and are more likely to read at grade level in the first, second and third grades. Good reading skills are considered essential for learning subject matter in classes in fourth grade and beyond.

“I did recognize that our students academically are not performing to the level they can be, so we’re looking for multiple ways to increase educational opportunity for our kids,” Noguchi said. “This can be an easy win if we can support our teachers in making this transition.”

Scott Siegel, superintendent of Ceres Unified, said there’s no reliable evidence that graduates of full-day kindergarten are smarter first graders, as state assessment testing begins in third grade. After making the switch 10 years ago, district staff did notice that writing samples, in which students strung together three or four simple sentences, were stronger.

“It is more time for the teacher to work with the kids,” Siegel said. “With the kindergarten curriculum, they are just getting more time to learn the material.”

Along with building early literacy, the best all-day programs are supposed to focus on child development and not try to produce academic champions. Ceres enhanced its program with art, music and physical education.

There were fears the 5-year-olds might lack the stamina for a longer schedule. “The teachers were good at finding ways to maintain their attention through the day,” said Amy Peterman, assistant superintendent of education services in Ceres. “The teachers are gifted at finding ways to include brain breaks and rest breaks for the students.”

Kirsten Saint, director of elementary education, said students can benefit from early intervention with the additional class time. If four or five children aren’t grasping the math concepts of addition and subtraction, the teacher can pull them aside to reteach a lesson.

In Tornquist’s classroom, the students did some “active writing” to reinforce good habits and their work was displayed on a wall. “I take good care of my teeth,” students wrote. “I always brush my teeth. I can eat healthy food.”

With full-day kindergarten, labor issues come into play as teachers are expected to teach the additional time, instead of taking a morning class and then assisting another teacher in the afternoon while prepping for the next day. Because of those short attention spans, teachers run through numerous activities in a normal day with the kids.

Tornquist has a teacher assistant for half the day.

Noguchi said the Sacramento school district where she previously worked had the full-day model and she was surprised it’s not widely used in Stanislaus County.

She said MCS should be able to find space at campuses for the facility needs of the all-day schedule without incurring many costs. An elementary school will need four classrooms to replace a half-day program held in two classrooms.

Noguchi said it can be difficult for working parents to arrange day care around a half-day kindergarten schedule. It’s typical for school districts in the state to show the worst attendance rates at the kindergarten level — and MCS is no exception — though that might change if the governor follows through with a proposal for mandatory kindergarten.

Stanislaus County is a pocket where partial-day kindergarten lives on. Sylvan Unified School District in Modesto said this week it’s not considering a change to the full-day schedule. Stanislaus Union School District has the full-day model.

Turlock Unified School District has an extended-day transitional kindergarten program at two campuses. Eight other schools in Turlock Unified use the half-day kindergarten model.

TUSD spokeswoman Marie Russell said the district has no plans for a full-day model districtwide, but could consider it with a promise of state funding for facilities and staffing.

Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.