Hayden’s all-day kindergarten catches Steamboat’s eye | SteamboatToday.com

Hayden’s all-day kindergarten catches Steamboat’s eye

Brian Ray

Justin Fry isn’t shy.

Before he started reading about eggs Thursday, he wanted to share what he thought about the students in Christine Epp’s kindergarten class at Hayden Valley Elementary School.

“We’re smarter than the first-, second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders,” Justin said.

Justin’s self-confidence in his knowledge, while bold, isn’t entirely off base. Hayden introduced all-day kindergarten in the fall, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive, said principal Rhonda Sweetser and teachers Melany Neton and Christine Epp.

When compared to previous kindergarteners in Hayden, this year’s 30-some students are at a different level academically and socially.

“It’s a lot more advanced than I expected,” Sweetser said. “I was just in Melany’s class, and the kids were bringing me writing samples. The kids were writing sentences and could read them to me. It’s fabulous to see all the progress.”

The spelling isn’t always right. The addition problems aren’t always answered correctly. Words aren’t always pronounced perfectly, but Epp doesn’t have a child lagging behind in knowing his or her letters or the sounds.

When a child can identify a letter and can correctly pronounce the sound it makes, including vowels, a child can read. And when a child can read, a world is opened.

“Their whole face lights up,” Neton said.

Funding issues

Kindergarten is not required in Colorado, so it is funded on a half-time basis. For example, each kindergartner in Hayden is worth $3,800 in funding this year from the state. By comparison, a first-grader or seventh-grader is worth $7,800 in per pupil funding, which helps the district pay for teachers and programs.

Without support from the state, most districts, including Hayden, could not make all-day kindergarten financially feasible for parents or the district.

Last June, Hayden received funding from the state through the Colorado Preschool Kindergarten Project. The annual grant was worth approximately $38,000 and was given to Hayden to fund five full-time kindergarten students. Hayden divided that into 10 half-time slots, and split the difference in funding between the parents and district to help with tuition costs.

This year, sending a child to kindergarten in Hayden for a full day is costing parents $1,078 for the entire school year. That’s about $7 per day, not including lunch.

Hayden Superintendent Mike Luppes said the district is eligible for the grant every year because it already has received it once. The district just has to maintain a standard and demonstrate it is using the money appropriately.

“We are planning to run a similar program next year to what was implemented this year,” Luppes said. “We are hoping for longstanding effects for our students. We are anticipating those effects are huge. We already see significant gains both academically and socially.”

Anyone doubting the worth of all-day kindergarten should spend a morning with Neton’s or Epp’s students. They will openly tell you how much they have learned so far this year.

Looking at math problems, the children solve addition and subtraction problems with their fingers, paper and pencil and their heads. Problems such as 7 plus 3 were difficult at the beginning of the year. Not anymore.

“We used to get tricked a lot but now, n-o, no,” said kindergartner Makenna Knez, who spelled and said “no” for extra emphasis.

All-day benefits

National research supports the implementation of all-day kindergarten programs that are developmentally appropriate for children.

According to the Educational Resources Information Center through the Web site http://www.kidsource.com, children have increased academic and behavioral benefits when enrolled in all-day kindergarten because instruction is less rushed, more geared to student needs and better assessed because five or six hours of instruction is longer than two or three hours.

While half-day programs can be of high-quality and productive, many children do well in full-day settings because they would either be in a preschool-kindergarten program or in daycare anyway, so an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, approximately, is not that taxing, said Dr. Sherrill Martinez and Lue Ann Snider of the Kansas State Department of Education in a study.

Neton, who taught half-day kindergarten in Moffat County before moving to Hayden for the 2006-07 school year, said her kindergartners in Craig made academic gains but, there, she struggled to find time for the social lessons she now is able to teach in Hayden.

“We can work on making friends, the correct way to respond to each other when conflict occurs and get to know each other a lot better,” Neton said.

Neton and Epp said the progress the children have made in writing is very noticeable. Epp also noted she had children who started school unable to spell their first names or identify every letter in the alphabet. Not anymore.

On Wednesday, Neton ran her students through a speed drill to see how quickly children could identify letters and sounds. The goal, obviously, is to make those skills automatic.

“With reading, they know quite a few more sight words, words they know just by looking at them,” Neton said. “Last year, we had a goal of 25 words for everyone. Right now, most of my kids have 40 sight words. Their reading levels are very exciting for them.”

Neton and Epp can’t imagine returning to half-day kindergarten.

“It’s really nice to be able to expand on a concept,” Epp said.

Steamboat next?

Georgia Reust and Sharon Clementson pull up to a mini-table with mini-chairs. Their kindergarten rooms at Soda Creek Elementary School are covered with letters, numbers, words, pictures and art projects. Both have been teaching for more than 20 years, and are counting the days when all-day kindergarten will be offered in Steamboat Springs.

Funding all-day kindergarten is discussed in the state legislature every year but never pushed through, Clementson said. She is hoping Gov. Bill Ritter will change that.

In Steamboat, implementing all-day kindergarten has been discussed for at least a decade, Reust said. South Routt has had all-day kindergarten for decades, making Steamboat the only public school district in the county that doesn’t offer all-day kindergarten. All-day kindergarten is offered at Christian Heritage School and at Whiteman Primary School, both private schools in Steamboat.

“Philosophically, we would love it,” Reust said. “We have so much we have to teach.”

Nowadays, kindergartners learn science, social studies, math and language in addition to learning how to work together, listen to instructions and get along with others. In fact, Reust and Clementson have moved past tying shoes, zipping jackets and spelling names. They expect children to know those skills when they enter school because the expectation of today’s students grows every year.

Of course, if students don’t have those skills, the teachers help them, but half-day kindergarten doesn’t leave a lot of excess time for helping children zip coats.

“I feel rushed through the educational process,” Reust added.

Steamboat’s kindergarten programs – all eight sections – are strong, and the children are learning based on the fact Steamboat’s students consistently outperform the state in all content levels and in all grades using the Colorado Student Assessment Program test grades as comparison.

Currently, space issues make all-day kindergarten impossible in Steamboat, but the completion of a new Soda Creek and the expansion of Strawberry Park, which is expected in two years, will offer the district the chance to take “a very serious” look at adding all-day kindergarten, said Superintendent Donna Howell.

“We know it’s extremely beneficial for early learning,” said Steamboat Springs School Board President Denise Connelly, who has pushed for all-day kindergarten as a parent with children in the district. “It gives kids a huge head start.”

The added classroom space and the consistent parent demand, coupled with research supporting all-day kindergarten as more beneficial for children, make the switch a real possibility in Steamboat.

Stephanie Howle, director of First Impressions of Routt County, works with area preschools. First Impressions has not taken a formal stand on whether it supports all-day kindergarten, but its mission is to prepare every child for school.

“We do recognize that there is a funding issue and First Impressions would not want to take away funding from an already strained elementary system,” Howle said. “First Impressions does support school readiness and having a system that recognizes the importance of developmentally appropriate early childhood education programs.”

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