Bright-eyed and breezy, they could be poster children for schools that have shifted from half-day to full-day kindergarten. While full-day kindergarten has critics (one lawmaker calls it "free baby-sitting"), Laura Soto isn't among them. If classes were only half-day, "we wouldn't have time to do anything really meaningful," she says. "They wouldn't even have time for recess, because I'd always be watching the clock, trying to fit things in."
In fact, these programs are so popular that cash-strapped districts such as Tucson Unified make sacrifices to maintain them--or risk losing students to charter schools. It's a dilemma throughout Arizona, which consistently ranks 50th among states in public per-pupil funding. At the same time, approximately 8 percent of the state's children now attend charter schools, compared with 1 percent nationally.
Jennifer Willey is among the many Tucson parents who want an educational headstart for their children. If Tucson Unified hadn't offered full-day kindergarten when her daughter began school, "we would certainly have checked out the alternatives, including charter schools," Willey says. "It was a big consideration for us."
But to retain parents like Willey, financially strapped TUSD must spend $6 million annually for all-day kindergarten. It's a Catch-22: Approximately 8,300 children attend charter schools within the Tucson school district's boundaries, costing the district about $42.5 million in state funds. At the same time, the district must spend additional funds to draw more students.
In recent budget negotiations, TUSD placed all-day kindergarten on the cutting block. But the district relented, under protest from parents like Willey. Had officials discontinued full-day kindergarten, "We would have absolutely seen our enrollment increase," says Anita Mendoza, assistance superintendent for the statewide charter chain AmeriSchools. Already, in the Phoenix area where many schools don't offer the full-day program, "we have a much higher enrollment of kindergartners," she says.
In metro Phoenix, competition for students has been turned up a notch; when one district began offering full-day kindergarten, other districts felt compelled to do the same, to attract newcomers.
This spring, several Phoenix-area districts will ask voters for additional funds for all-day kindergarten. Others, such as Mesa, even offer summertime "kindergarten academies." The two-week program gets children ready for full-time kindergarten by teaching them basic penmanship and how to form lines.
While not all schools go that far, many across the country are battling to retain and even boost their full-day programs, as budgets grow tighter. A year ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District--the nation's second-largest--voted to expand full-day kindergarten programs. In Maryland, school systems are mandated to have full-day kindergarten by the 2007-2008 school year, and in Oklahoma, Gov. Brad Henry has pushed a $114 million school-improvement initiative that includes all-day kindergarten.
Here in Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano has also placed all-day kindergarten high on her agenda, and last year signed a bill extending $25 million in full-day kindergarten funds to 130 of the state's poorest schools. "We began a battle for all-day kindergarten last year out of a conviction that we need to invest in early education," Napolitano said at the bill-signing ceremony. "We've made a commitment to our young people to show them that education is our No. 1 thing."
But is all-day kindergarten worth the cost? Yes, say many experts, who agree that the classes can give children a boost before first grade. Having a full-day of teaching at a young age has also proven a big boost to English learners. But the quality of the program is key. According to research, "High quality (full-day) programs can make a difference," says Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "It can be a tremendous opportunity for children."
Proponents argue that all-day kindergarten is even more crucial in states such as Arizona, where the number of non-English-speaking students has surged in recent years. Children who start learning early "have a much greater chance of becoming successful in English than if it starts later on," says Fred Brown, associate executive director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
That becomes crucial if English learners are to meet increasingly stringent national and state standards, says Roberta Witkin, who has taught for 27 years in a Mesa school that's now 90 percent Hispanic. "If teachers have to follow these mandates, the kids need a full day of kindergarten."
Schools do feel pressure to keep test scores high, "especially in districts with at-risk children," says Susan Nall, a professor of early childhood education at Webster University in St. Louis. But that pressure is not necessarily misplaced, she says. "It can be an absolutely good thing, if the program is of high quality."
Still, there is a gap between districts which can afford to offer all-day programs--let alone high quality ones--and those that cannot without bitter cuts in other areas. Many cash-strapped districts must sacrifice to keep their all-day kindergarten programs alive. For example, TUSD has made staffing cuts.
In many ways, it's a poor man's problem, says Fred Brown. "Affluent communities don't have to make these kinds of choices. So there's a discrepancy that begins to grow between the affluent and less-affluent school districts."
Back at Borton Primary School, Principal Terry Melendez isn't sure if she'll be here next year: She's among several principals under consideration to simultaneously oversee two schools in a budget-tightening measure. Under this arrangement, Borton would be teamed with nearby Holladay Elementary, sharing one principal between them.
So you could say Melendez knows quite well the sacrifices made to keep all-day kindergarten. Still, she remains a proponent of the classes, and believes that a growing number of parents won't settle for less. Melendez recalls when the district first offered all-day kindergarten in the 1970s. "The waiting list was a mile long," she says. "Parents were begging to be let in, because they felt it was necessary for their children."
Thirty years later, parents are no longer begging. Now, they are demanding full-day kindergarten--regardless of the cost.