Full Day Kindergarten

Full day kindergarten programs appear to be less unusual across the United States than they have been in the past. More than 61% of the schools that offer Kindergarten programs have at least one full day class. It appears that a higher percentage of Catholic schools offer full day kindergarten than public schools or other private schools.

In 1979, only 25% of all kindergarteners were enrolled in full day program. By 2000, over 60% of all children enrolled in Kindergarten in the United State were in a full day program. Today, many children attend center based preschools, many with full day or extended day programs. Kindergarten is no longer the entry point to “real school” for many children. When a five year old is expected to adjust from an extended day in preschool to a few hours in kindergarten, parents are left to fill the gap if full day options are not available. Whether a parent needs child care or not, there is something wrong when half day kindergarten is not challenging enough, or does not fill enough hours of a regular day for a 5 year old who has previously attended a full or extended day preschool center program.

Public schools that offer full day kindergartens tend to be located in cities, but suburban districts are catching up. A higher percentage of public schools in the Southern USA offer full day kindergarten, compared with other regions.

In reviewing early childhood standards for No Child Left Behind, I believe that all state departments of education need to mandate full day programs available to kindergarteners in all districts, and allocate funding to local districts to make this possible. This doesn’t mean replacing the half day programs – not all children need a full day. But they need to be available for a number of reasons. Not only are many children coming to school ready to do more than a half day, many parents cannot coordinate the half day breakup in the routine. Children who have attended full day center based care find it disruptive to go to school for a few hours, and then a few hours in after care, with maybe a few hours before school with a different family member or care provider. At 5, children want their world to be predictable, and their educational environment should support that stability.

The northeast region of the United States has the fewest number of full day kindergarten programs available. I can tell you as a parent living in one of those New Jersey districts that has resisted making full day kindergarten available for over 15 years, the experience is frustrating for both parent and child. Parents pay high taxes and then pay an additional hidden tax to send their kindergartener to private school with full day kindergarten.

It has been argued repeatedly in my district that those bad working moms made choices and the taxpayers should not have to pay for those choices by funding full day kindergarten. I find that many two income families (who are now the norm in my town, not the exception, due to the high cost of living here) don’t dispute the need to pay for before and after school care, transportation, babysitters for snow days, etc. Those are expenses that they are able and willing to pay. Full day kindergarten is not the same thing as full day child care.

The question of full day kindergarten is not just a logistical one for these families, it is an educational one. How can a district which has focused on half day kindergarten programs as the entry point for formal schooling address the educational needs of students who have a bit more formal experience in their background? Discarding those families and the great early childhood experiences their children have had in center based care seems a bit short sighted to me.

Offering full day kindergarten is more than just extending the day. States need to assure that the programs are appropriate to the developmental level of 5 and 6 year olds, and that the pace of the day is varied. Details on planning statewide full day kindergartens can be found in the report Full Day Kindergarten: a Study of State Policies in the United States by the Education Commission of the States, a non profit nationwide organization. The report is a fascinating look at the current programs offered, and makes sound recommendations for departments of education to offer access to full day kindergarten to all students. This report and discussions of many important educational issues can be found on their website