Half-day kindergarten classes to return for some

| Friday, March 18, 2011

More and more school districts have made the switch from half-day to full-day kindergarten during the past several years, but school officials say that tide may be reversed as the state program that paid for it falls under the governor's budget ax.

"It's just a sad day. We had to start this now, and I'm sure we won't be the only ones," said Roger D'Emidio, superintendent of East Allegheny School District, which this week was the first in the area to announce that it would go back to half-day classes.

As school districts re-examine their budgets in light of Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed $1.2 billion cut to education spending, full-day kindergarten is likely to be one of the first programs to go.

The governor called for the elimination of Accountability Block Grants, a $260 million program begun in 2004-05 that focused primarily on early education, including kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.

Most districts used their grants to begin full-day kindergarten. According to state Department of Education enrollment statistics, last year about 85,000 of Pennsylvania's 125,000 kindergarteners were in full-day classes. More than three quarters of them were in programs funded by Accountability Block Grants.

Cutting full-day kindergarten is "one of the options that will be on the table," said Tom Yarabinetz, superintendent of Greensburg Salem, which got $240,000 through the program last year. "If it's going to continue, we're going to have to pay for it with the general budget."

Cindy Mondi, who teaches kindergarten at Amos K. Hutchinson Elementary in Southwest Greensburg, said the full-day program the district began this year had improved students' skills and their readiness for first grade.

"All the kindergarten teachers love it," she said. "We do not know how we did it in half a day. The kids are so much further along than they were last year."

Though researchers have not studied full-day kindergarten in-depth, Peter Pizzolongo, a senior director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said evidence suggested it improved reading and writing skills.

"Pragmatically, full-day programs are going to offer more opportunities," Pizzolongo said. "Unfortunately, it's one of the first things to cut."

Full-day kindergarten has been on the chopping block in other states that are struggling to balance their budgets. This week, Ohio's legislature repealed a law that would have required districts to offer full-day kindergarten. Utah lawmakers are debating whether to continue a pilot program that funded full-day kindergarten for struggling students.

Though every district in Pennsylvania offers kindergarten, Pennsylvania is one of only six states that does not require it at all.

"The fact that kindergarten is not mandatory in Pennsylvania, I think that's part of the rationale that a half day is enough," explained Colleen Kopp, vice president of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education.

But Kopp noted that third-graders who had been in full-day kindergarten did better on the reading PSSA test than those who had been in half-day kindergarten.

"Studies show that zero to five, those are the most important learning years in a child's life," she said.

While most school officials and education advocates believe full-day kindergarten is the way to go, support among parents has not been universal.

Andrea Shissler, whose 4-year-old son will attend Metzgar Elementary next year, said she would be glad if Greensburg Salem went back to half-day sessions.

"It's really rushing the children," she said. "To me, with the fiscal climate that we have in the state, it's just a luxury that we cannot afford."

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