- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Young students across the state have now completed their first year in full-day kindergarten classes and they, along with their teachers and administrators, are likely rejoicing as they ease into a nearly three-month break from school, schedules and homework.

But according to at least two kindergarten teachers in the Eugene School District, the long break isn’t the only thing to be excited about.

Shelly Silver, 49, is a kindergarten teacher at Howard Elementary School in north Eugene. She says that this year’s switch from half-day to full-day kindergarten was one of the most beneficial things that could have been done for her students.

“I feel like my kids have learned a lot more this year than we have in previous years,” Silver said. “We have so much more time to spend learning - practicing handwriting and math games, making art - lots of things we weren’t able to do before.”

Silver was one of many teachers across Oregon who switched from teaching two half-day kindergarten classes a day to having one six-hour program in this just-ended school year.

“It’s the best thing we could have done to help prepare students for their next step,” Silver said.

This school year, 99.7 percent of the state’s 5- and 6-year-olds enrolled in full-day kindergarten, state data show. The huge increase from the 2014-15 school year, when only 42 percent of kindergartners were enrolled in full-day programs, is mostly due to a change in state school funding allocations.

Last year, the Legislature changed the school funding formula to allocate full weight for each kindergartner, allocating an extra $110 million a year to cover the cost of the longer days. Previously, since the late 1990s, school districts received only half of the per-pupil allotment for kindergartners. With only half funding, most districts provided kindergarten for only half a day.

The funding change and shift to full-day programs was made in part as an effort to increase the number of students who can read well by third grade. During the 2014-15 school year, 46 percent of third-grade students in Oregon were considered to have a “below basic” level of knowledge and skills needed to be proficient readers and writers, the state report card shows.

State data show that 1,033 third-grade students in the Eugene, Springfield and Bethel school districts did not meet state or federal standards in the English and Language Arts category in the 2014-15 school year. Broken down by district, that means about 46 percent of third-grade students in the Eugene district, about 60 percent in the Springfield district and about 55 percent in the Bethel district did not meet grade-level reading and writing standards.

The 2014-15 school year also was the first year the state replaced its previous state assessment test - the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or OAKS - with the new Smarter Balanced assessments. Thus, results from prior years are not directly comparable, and the results for the current school year will not be available for several months.

Educators hope the push to full-day kindergarten will help grow the number of students who meet those standards. Silver, who had 21 kindergartners in her class this school year, thinks it will work.

“Having a full day of class makes such a huge difference in helping them comprehend a concept and move forward,” she said. “For the students who are ready, the extra time provides a way to help them go further; and for the ones who aren’t, they get more time to work on things and get ready for the next step.”

Nathan Vigil-Glover, a 5-year-old kindergartner in Silver’s class, is a prime example of extra class time being beneficial.

“When he got here, he couldn’t write anything and he would cry and cry and say, ‘I can’t do it!’?” Silver said.

But Nathan said over the course of the year, his attitude toward writing completely changed.

“I would cry when I couldn’t do my work,” Nathan said. “Now I can do it! I’m the best at writing my name.”

Nathan, who then showcased his writing abilities on a nearby notebook, said it took him a long time to get the hang of writing.

“I was trying and trying all year,” he said. “But now it’s easy.”

Early start

In Oregon, parents are not required to enroll their children in kindergarten; required school attendance begins at age 7. And while Oregon school districts must offer at least half-day kindergarten, they aren’t obliged to provide full-day kindergarten. Additionally, kindergarten does not need to be offered as part of the curriculum at every elementary school.

The three main districts in the Eugene-Springfield area only offer full-day programs.

State officials say the full-day program is key to helping students succeed and ultimately graduate from high school, another sensitive subject among educators and parents.

Oregon ranked 49th in the nation in terms of graduation rates, with 69 percent of high school seniors graduating in 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Eugene district Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said full-day kindergarten can have direct and positive effects on Oregon’s low graduation rates.

“If we can really provide strong support at these early ages, it makes more of an impact later on,” Balderas said. “If we can get students up to speed by the end of third grade, or in the primary years, and keep supporting them, we can get them on track and keep them on track.”

Balderas said the extra time that teachers get to spend with students provides that next-level support.

“Not only do they get to spend more time teaching their students and helping them academically, they (the teachers) also have more time to get to know their students personally and behaviorally,” Balderas said. “That allows them to then understand how that student learns best, or what that student’s extra needs may be, which helps us continue to support those students moving forward.”

Academic progress

Rebecca Boyd, a kindergarten teacher at Spring Creek Elementary, said the switch to full-day kindergarten left her feeling like her students are ready to move on to first grade.

“Some weren’t even writing before this year and now they have these beautiful creations,” Boyd said. “Their academic progress will be so much more positive because they’re going to be able to go into first grade and be able to read and write.”

Boyd said in addition to feeling less rushed in the classroom, getting to spend some one-on-one time with her students helped her identify some of their needs more easily.

“I love that instead of all the large group activities, I have a lot more individualized time with them to address their strengths and needs,” Boyd said. “It helped them become socially, academically and emotionally prepared for that next big step.”

Boyd said it also benefited working parents.

“This really helped some single-parent families in the workforce,” Boyd said. “The full-day program really reduces the amount of transitions the students have to go through throughout the day, too.”

Springfield District Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said she’s already seen positive results from the full-day program. In reviewing preliminary numbers on interim assessment data relative to reading, officials compared last year’s half-day kindergarten cohort with this year’s full-day cohort at the “winter benchmark,” Rieke-Smith said.

“We had more children at benchmark in the full-day kindergarten program than we did with the now first-grade half-day cohort, so that’s huge,” she said.

Rieke-Smith said in some cases about 75 percent of the full-day kindergarten students were meeting reading benchmarks this winter, in comparison to the 35 percent of students, who didn’t have full-day kindergarten, meeting their grade-level standards.

Rieke-Smith said some full-day kindergarten students have also made strides in their writing abilities.

“Looking at their writing, they’re using complete sentences with almost no grammatical errors or spelling errors,” she said. “It looked more like the end of first grade than it did the end of kindergarten.”


Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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