Children enrolled in full-day kindergarten are much stronger readers than their predecessors in half-day kindergarten, according to comparative data from the Marana Unified School District.
In fact, statistics show it's not even close.
Marana schools went from a half-day to full-day kindergarten schedule in 2006-'07. The district uses a test called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or the DIBELS, to compare student performance in reading.
In 2005-'06, 49 percent of MUSD half-day kindergarten students read at "benchmark" standards. Today, that figure for full-time kindergarten students is 83 percent.
In '05-'06, 30 percent of MUSD kindergarten students needed "intensive" help to improve their reading. Today, that figure is 7 percent. And the trends have improved each year.
District officials have no doubt the full-day schedule is of value to students.
"We recognize that, from a foundation piece, we won't know full-day kindergarten's real importance for another five, six, seven years, when they get into high school," Superintendent Dr. Doug Wilson said. "But we recognize early on how much of an impact full-day kindergarten is having."
"Reading is everything," says first-grade teacher April Bettilyon, who takes Coyote Trail Elementary School kindergarten students to the next level. "Reading is so magical in the primary grades."
Bettilyon, a classroom veteran, sees vast improvement in the students she gets from full-day kindergarten.
"What an advantage," Bettilyon said. "Cognitively, they're reading for the challenges of first grade. They're so much more advanced in their reading than I thought they would be. They get it."
Full-day kindergarten students may get it, but funding for full-day kindergarten is imperiled.
Gov. Jan Brewer's budget "shows basically the elimination of funding for full-day kindergarten," Wilson said. Brewer's Southern Arizona representative, Tim Bee, said she supports full-day kindergarten, but "there just won't be funding for it."
MUSD has 966 children in full-day kindergarten at its elementary schools. It costs about $2.5 million a year to offer, with the state specifically providing just under $2 million. That money pays for more teachers; when kindergarten was a half-day course, one teacher taught two sessions, in the morning and the afternoon. Today, 47 full-time kindergarten teachers work with classes of just over 20 students.
The threat of state funding loss for full-day kindergarten, coupled with reductions absorbed the last three years and potentially greater cuts from Phoenix, have Wilson concerned, and scrambling to identify priorities. Full-day kindergarten is one of many.
"Philosophically, we do believe strongly in this," Wilson said. "With the results we're seeing, everything we can do to protect it, we will do."
A higher, 15 percent override before the voters next Tuesday, March 9, "would certainly make a difference," he said. "It won't necessarily save anything. What it's going to do is lessen the blow."
The district is "sensitive to the fact we have a community suffering just like we are," Wilson said. "We are tightening our belts. We want to make sure people don't think we're just looking for a handout."
Coyote Trail kindergarten teacher Lori Valentine fears decision-makers may cut funding for full-day kindergarten without understanding its effect.
"They're acting like it doesn't matter," she said. "It's very short-sighted."
If MUSD were to return to half-day kindergarten, "you totally take a step backwards," Bettilyon said. "A half-day can't begin to encompass all the things they need to cover. It will be a shame. We would back it down in every grade."
But the reductions in funding may be compounding. "Trying to figure out how to cut $10 million out of our budget, and to continue to support full-day kindergarten, will be a challenge," Wilson said.
He's been told that, if a 1 percent sales tax increase does not pass in May, "the only place the Legislature has to cut is K-12. 'Be prepared to cut 17-20 percent next year,'" he's been told. "That's incredible." Total cuts might be on the order of $15 million, on top of $8.6 million Marana is doing without in the last three years."
To date, "we've kept those cuts away from the classroom, away from the kids," public information director Tamara Crawley said. Eighty-five percent of the district's budget goes to staff salaries and benefits. MUSD operates its administration on 9 percent of the budget. "We've done a lot to try to figure out how to save money," Crawley said.
"From here on out, the only way we can do it is by staff," Wilson said. "We really don't have a lot of administrative positions. We'll cut as much away from the classroom as we can. But the only thing left for us is to start eliminating staff, at all levels."
Wilson is "not against accountability." But he can't understand why Arizona may require testing at the third-grade level — with retention for those who are not reading at grade level — while eliminating money for full-day kindergarten and its demonstrable effect upon reading abilities.
"We are entrusted with our future," Wilson said. "We talk about 'touching eternity,' that's what we are doing. We have a charge. Many people in the community are entrusting their children, our future, to us, to do the right thing."
Teacher, once skeptical of full-day kindergarten, has become a believer
It's 3:20 on a Tuesday afternoon, and Lori Valentine's kindergarten students are restless while she squeezes the last bit of learning into the day. Some reading. Some conversation about coins.
The kids at Coyote Trail Elementary School in Marana are ready to go, a little tired, a little distracted. Calmly, Valentine directs them, managing the weary, keeping them literally in line when the bell rings.
"I don't know how she does it," says an aide.
Valentine has taught kindergarten for 13 years, with some first grade and some special education experience. She loves teaching kindergarten.
"They come to me as babies in the fall, and when they leave, they're first-graders," she said. "There are a lot of changes in that year. You do see the most obvious growth, physically, academically, socially. It's all there."
Some of her years were spent in the half-day kindergarten setting, with one section of children in the morning, another in the afternoon. Valentine and other MUSD kindergarten teachers have worked in the full-day kindergarten setting since 2006-'07.
"I was not necessarily a full-day proponent," Valentine allows, because she was unsure the students could handle the longer day.
"I was selling the kiddos short," Valentine said. "I didn't have a grasp or a handle on what they could truly do. They're capable of doing so much more than even I thought they could.
"It's so much better."
She pulls out a book, the phonetic "Dot Got a Big Spot."
Before full-day kindergarten, "I wouldn't have even dreamed my kids would read this, maybe a couple, but all my kids are reading this," she said. "We have kids that come in and don't know any letters and sounds, and they're reading."
Students in her class write journals. "Before, I was happy if they wanted to write 'I like my dog' as 'I Lk m d'." Now, some of them can write "I like my dog," with spaces between words, spelling correct, some punctuation in place.
In a half day, "we didn't have the time to spend on it, and the kids didn't have the skill to write independently," she said.
They're better at math. They get some music and physical education, and time with computers. They're better socially. "They're really able to form relationships with kids they're getting to spend a day with," she said. "They're more caring and compassionate, I've found. That's just as wonderful to see as the academic progress.
"The growth is amazing."
Kindergarteners are performing better in full-day sessions … and more is expected of them, everyone agrees.
"As much as we want it to be an environment that prepares them to be successful first-graders, they're still 5-year-olds," MUSD Superintendent Dr. Doug Wilson said. "But they're doing more. They're challenged. There are more academics in kindergarten today than there were three, four years ago, and we're getting better at it."
"There are standards, mandated, beginning at kindergarten," said Tamara Crawley, MUSD's director of public relations. "They have to have the reading, the writing, the counting skills."
"Before, when they left kindergarten, they knew letters and sounds," Valentine said. "Now they are expected to leave here reading."
First-grade teacher April Bettilyon, a veteran in the classroom, said with greater standards, "we expect kids to come to first grade with basic fluency skills. They need to know their letters and sounds. If not, they're already behind. Do people understand how much we expect from first graders? First grade is now what I taught in second grade" years ago.
"We do not have time in a half-day" to meet those requirements, Valentine believes.
Full-day kindergarten has made Valentine a better teacher. "I'm not feeling so rushed and so harried," she said. "It's really nice."
It's to the point where Valentine, originally unsure about the merits of full-day kindergarten, doesn't know if she could go back.