By Oliver Lazenby
When she first heard full-time kindergarten was coming to Blaine Primary School, veteran teacher Teresa Smith was apprehensive. She thought that much time in the classroom would be too much for 5-year-olds.
The first year of state-mandated full-time kindergarten at Blaine Primary School ends on Friday, June 23, and Smith’s apprehension about wiggling 5-year-olds kept too long in a classroom has mostly resolved.
“I think because of how we did it and because it wasn’t so academic, it made it really comfortable for the kids,” Smith said. “It was more play-based and it just feels like they’re fine. I was really pleasantly surprised.”
While it’s still too early to tell from testing, teachers and administrators believe full-time kindergarten at Blaine Primary School appears to be a success. School and district officials said this class of kindergarteners is better at reading and math than previous classes and better prepared for first grade.
“It has gone very well,” said school district superintendent Ron Spanjer. “Student response, staff response and the response of families have all been generally positive.”
Previously, Blaine kindergarteners went to school for a full day, but on an every other day schedule. Some classes would attend on Wednesday and Friday, and others on Tuesday and Thursday, with the two cohorts switching off every other Monday.
That schedule made it difficult for kids to learn routines, according to some Blaine Primary School teachers. Learning where to hang coats and backpacks and what to do at lunch can be time consuming for kindergarteners, teacher Sue Steelquist said.
“You’d constantly have to be re-teaching them all the things about how to be in school,” she said. “Now, it doesn’t feel like we’re always taking two steps forward and one step back.”
Some parents felt the same way about the old schedule. Mona Santos had been through half-time kindergarten with her older daughter, who’s now in second grade.
“There were so many teacher workdays and holidays and it kind of felt like they never went to school,” Santos said.
Sometimes the kids would go to school two days in a row, sometimes they’d have one day off between school days, and other times they’d have four-day weekends. That schedule seemed confusing to Santos’ older daughter, and starting first grade required a lot of adjustment, she said.
Her younger daughter, now in kindergarten, has adjusted more easily to kindergarten and has learned routines faster, Santos said.
Smith said the full-time schedule allows more time for teachers to help students adjust to school. The academic goals are the same, but the students have twice the time to get there.
A school day includes not just academics, but also three recesses and other blocks of time where students get to choose what
“The pace now feels comfortable,” Smith said. “We have tried to make learning all the basic skills of reading and writing a really joyful process. If you walked into the classroom, much of the time it would look like we’re playing, especially at the beginning of the year.”
That method of teaching is working, said Emily Olsen, whose son is in kindergarten. Olsen, who volunteers in the classroom and used to be a teacher, also has a daughter in second grade.
“I see the difference when I’m in the class,” Olsen said “The kids are stronger readers exiting kindergarten this year than before.”
For both Smith and Steelquist, teaching is easier because they only have one class instead of two – 22 students instead of 44. That allows teachers to work with students more consistently and they don’t have to remind themselves each day which kids need extra help in a given area, they say.
“We also get to know the families and the students so much better,” Steelquist said.
Blaine’s program is part of a state-wide emphasis on early childhood education. Washington state mandated that all school districts offer full-time kindergarten by the 2016-2017 school year and provided funding for extra kindergarten teacher salaries in its 2015-2017 biennium budget.
Although the extra money allowed the school district to hire three more kindergarten teachers, coming up with classroom space, figuring out how to feed and transport more students per day and funding extra specialist time fell to the district.
Those obstacles have likely been harder to overcome for smaller districts; for the 2015-2016 school year, Blaine was one of six districts in Washington that had to turn down state money because it didn’t have enough classroom space, according to the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
With the primary school addition – a $4 million project funded by a bond taxpayers passed in 2015 – the district added 10,000 square feet to the school, including eight classrooms and a music room.
Starting the full-time kindergarten program one year late gave the school district time to learn from other districts. Primary school principal Nancy Bakarich visited other full-time kindergarten programs before the primary school started its program.
“I think our transition was much smoother than some districts,” Bakarich said.
Kindergarteners took an assessment at the end of the year, but the district doesn’t know how they scored yet, Bakarich said. Perhaps an even better metric of full-time kindergarten’s effectiveness will be the earliest state assessment in third grade, called the Smarter Balanced assessment.
Several studies have shown that though students in full-time kindergarten tested significantly better in reading and math at first, the benefits nearly disappear by third grade.
Bakarich is hoping first grade teachers will be able to spend less time teaching routines to this year’s kindergarteners, and will hit the ground running academically.
“It will be interesting to hear what the first grade team thinks when school starts next year,” she said.