If Friedrich Fröbel could visit Katie McNutt’s kindergarten classroom at Hoover Elementary School, he’d likely smile.
A German educator, Fröbel is credited with opening the world’s first kindergarten in 1840. Kindergarten in German means “children’s garden.”
And that’s the perfect way to describe McNutt’s classroom, especially in the afternoon. Take last Tuesday, for example.
Instead of being seated at their desks and receiving instruction as they did in the morning, her 12 pupils were up and about, smiling and laughing.
Some were participating in story time. Others were writing words and sentences, and still others were drawing. What really stood out was how well the students were communicating and working with each other.
“This is important,” McNutt said. “It keeps it real, like kindergarten should be. Full of enrichment.”
Getting to spend more time around classmates is one of the benefits of the Corvallis School District’s full-day, tuition-based kindergarten enrichment program.
However, its future is in jeopardy.
Big decision looms
At a Corvallis School Board meeting Nov. 2, Superintendent Dawn Tarzian recommended that the full-day kindergarten enrichment program be discontinued.
She argued that the district can’t afford to continue the program the way it is.
School board members will hear public testimony Monday evening and then make a decision on whether to continue the full-day kindergarten enrichment program on Dec. 7.
Half-day kindergarten programs offered without tuition would not be affected.
“If the board decides not to continue the program, we would look at developing other options, such as child care,” said Assistant Superintendent Jeanne Holmes. “We don’t want to leave the community out to dry.”
Up until 2007, the Corvallis School District offered a tuition-based, full-day kindergarten program that supported itself by allocating a certain number of spots for families paying the full tuition while saving others for those needing full or partial scholarships. If there were more applicants than spots available at a particular school, a lottery was held.
Two years ago, the state attorney general determined that school districts could not charge tuition for direct kindergarten instruction. As a result, the Corvallis School District switched to a hybrid approach.
Now, instruction to meet state and district standards is provided during the first half of the day, while the second half, the tuition-based part, is devoted to activities designed to reinforce previously learned material. These so-called enrichment activities include reading, writing and art.
But some teachers, such as McNutt, didn’t introduce new material even when it was OK. They wanted to use the additional time to get to know their students better and let them explore.
“A lot of us felt when we were covering what was required by the state and district in the morning, we were scurrying to get everything done,” McNutt said. “I saw the afternoons as a way to give more attention to each student.”
The attorney general’s office also determined all students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches who wanted to enroll in tuition-based kindergarten programs must be provided scholarships.
So the district began using a lottery in which all students were included without consideration to whether their families paid tuition or received a scholarship. The Corvallis Public Schools Foundation is covering the additional $50,000 cost this school year.
With more students becoming eligible for the subsidized lunch program due to the sluggish economy, the district will likely have to offer more scholarships, further increasing the cost.
Garfield, Lincoln in a different situation
All-day kindergarten made its debut in the Corvallis School District in 1994. Due to parent interest, a full-day class was established at the now-defunct Harding Elementary School.
This school year, the full-day kindergarten enrichment program is offered at Adams, Hoover, Jefferson, Mountain View and Wilson elementary schools and serves 124 students. Tuition is $355 per month.
Another 120 students are enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs at Garfield Elementary and Lincoln K-8 School. Their programs can include direct instruction because they receive Title 1 funds. However, less of this federal grant money will be available for the 2010-11 school year.
If the school board decides to continue full-day kindergarten, the district would have to cover the cost of scholarships for students at both schools. If that happens, it could push the cost of full-day kindergarten to $300,000.
The two schools could continue their programs, even if the school board decides to discontinue the full-day kindergarten enrichment program, if they have the funds to do so. But they likely would have to make cuts to other programs they offer.
Growing in popularity
According to the Oregon Department of Education, 78 school districts offered full-day kindergarten enrichment programs five days a week, like Corvallis, during the 2008-09 school year.
That’s a significant increase from the 22 that did so during 2003-04, the first year the Oregon Department of Education started keeping track. That year, 3,895 students were enrolled in all-day kindergarten. In 2008-09, there were 12,072.
While there’s no data proving that students who participate in full-day kindergarten enrichment perform better in school than students who participate half days, Holmes said one-sub group of students appears to benefit from full-day kindergarten.
“By third grade, most of the kids are even with each other,” Holmes said. “But we have seen that English as second language students who have been in full-day kindergarten make big strides.”
Parents who have had children enrolled in a full-day kindergarten enrichment program understand its importance.
Program fosters an appreciation for learning
Christine Mueller, whose daughter Michaela is in McNutt’s class, said Michaela looks forward to going to school because of the extra time she gets to spend around her classmates.
“It’s terrific,” Mueller said. “She wants to go to school. One time she had to miss half of the day because of a doctor’s appointment and she was distraught.”
Other parents share Mueller’s sentiments, saying the program had helped their children in everything from reading to math.
“She’s really writing a lot more,” Courtney Armentrout said of her daughter Tallulah Shearman, also in McNutt’s class. “She’ll come home and write notes to her friends. She’s become really good at working at home.”
Brandi Langsdorf, another Hoover parent, said the enrichment program helps students develop their social skills by allowing them to work together to solve problems.
After seeing how much the full-day kindergarten benefited her oldest, Kate, Langsdorf wants to enroll her 4-year-old, Isla, when she’s ready. But she might not get the opportunity.
She said she doesn’t want to enroll Isla in half-day kindergarten because she thinks Isla would benefit more from a full-day program and she doesn’t want to have to rearrange her work schedule.
“We’d probably look at a private school for her,” Langsdorf said. “Or try to find some kind of full-day option.”
Child care is a big issue for many parents. Jana Compton and her husband, Steve Perakis, looked into the option earlier this year when they weren’t sure if their daughter, Sophia, could get into the program at Hoover because they had to go through the lottery process.
Compton said she doesn’t know what they would have done had Sophia not gotten a spot because there weren’t many attractive child-care options in the area.
“She was in the full-day preschool program at Ashbrook for two years,” Compton said. “So I think she was ready for full-day kindergarten. I think she would have been very unhappy if she wasn’t going all day.”