Full-Day Kindergarten Closes Achievement Gap, Yet N.H. Lags Way Behind In Adopting It

May 20, 2015

Kindergarten is a year of transition. Kids are learning how to listen, follow directions, sit still... but while they are making that transition, there’s a lot of mandatory wiggling.

In Mr. Woody’s morning kindergarten class, in Plainfield, a class of students blows off some steam while doing a “wiggle dance.” A stereo plays a children’s song that Mr. Woody sings along to, and the kids giggle and flail.

Mark Woodcock is something of a legend in this town. He’s been at it so long that several of the students in this class are children of his former students. “I am on my second generation here, yes. If I get to the third someone please show me the door, I’ve been too long at the party,” he says laughing.

His half-day program starts with morning circle. The kids take attendance, record the weather, and sharpen their math skills and number sense by counting their days at school. They have library time, they do a lesson on the lifecycle of a frog, they have snack and a bit of free play. To cap it all off, they read a story, also frog-themed.

And then that’s it.

Their three hours are up. The kids run outside to play while they wait for their parents to arrive.

“With three hours, it’s real hard. It’s very stressful,” says Woodcock, “I’m at the point where come May I’m looking at some students and I’m thinking ‘They’re going to first grade! I feel like maybe I haven’t done my job!’”

But that’s about to change.

Related: Watch the Spread of Full-Day Kindergarten Since 1999

“I’m over the moon excited about next year. I can balance all of it now, because I have the time now. They can get math and language arts in one day,” he explains, “It also gives me the chance now with a longer day to bring in parts that I’ve dropped off, some of the science, some of the social studies.”

The town of Plainfield voted to go to full-day kindergarten this year. The effort followed a letter-writing campaign led by parent Suzanne Spencer-Rendahl, whose daughter went through half-day kindergarten. At the time, her working schedule made half-day something of a nightmare.

“I had to take her all the way – because there’s not many child-care options in the town – so I would have to take her to Lebanon, drop her off for after-care, and then go to work,” Spencer-Rendahl remembers.

NH Lags Behind In Full-Day K

Full day kindergarten programs are proliferating across the state.
Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR. Data: NH DOE/ NH Association of School Administrators

  Plainfield is just the latest district to opt for full-day, and one of nine districts this fall. Next year, there will be more than 90 schools that have chosen to expand their half-day programs.

But compared to the rest of the nation, New Hampshire lags.

A report from Education Week found New Hampshire was second-to-last for attendance at full-day kindergarten. Just 55 percent of kindergarten aged New Hampshire students are in full day programs, compared to 75 percent nationwide. This is in part due to the fact that the state offers funding only for half-day programs, but it’s likely also in part because New Hampshire was the last state to mandate public kindergarten.

Plainfield is not a rich town, but that doesn’t seem to hurt its chances for expanding kindergarten. An analysis done by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies for NHPR finds that districts with high child poverty are more likely to have full-day programs. It found no connection to enrollment trends, property values in towns, or rural versus urban schools.

While many working parents clamor for a longer day, parents as a whole are not a unified block.

“I feel really conflicted about it,” says Emily Twarog who stays home to care for her kids in Plainfield. She baby sits for two others after kindergarten lets out, and says she values the time for unstructured play that her kids get in the afternoon.

“They go to school for a lot of years, and I just enjoy having them home as long as I can,” she says. Twarog says she notices a kind of fatigue in her kids when they are done with class, and thinks a full-day would be too much.

But not every kid is going to a never-ending play-date after school, many parents can’t afford a babysitter or an aftercare program.

“They cost money, so not all kids can get into those programs,” says Mark Woodcock, “and some may be going home with grandparents and they have a quieter day than say kids that are going to another program after me.”

How Much School Is Too Much School?

Chloe Gibbs, a researcher at the University of Virginia, says this question launched her career.

“I really thought it was an open question, do five-year olds really get benefit from being in a classroom for that many hours or are we really keeping them too long past a certain point?” says Gibbs.

But after more than a decade of asking that question, Gibbs says the answer is clear: kids who go to full-day kindergarten do better on tests for years afterward, though other students tend to begin to catch up by fourth grade.

“The effect I find on average is about an additional three, three-and-a-half months of schooling effect,” says Gibbs. That benefit is even higher for kids who come into school with low literacy skills.

Lunchbags lined up on a playground in Pembroke as students take their recess.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Gibbs says full day kindergarten has a bigger impact than smaller class sizes and participation in Headstart programs and it generally costs less.

It seems, in New Hampshire, that’s part of what is convincing towns to extend the day.  

Pembroke was one of the first schools in the state to go full-day.

The daily schedule hanging on the wall in Trois Montana’s kindergarten classroom  has more than twice as many classes on it than the one in Plainfield, including separate times for reading, writing, and math. Sitting for an interview during her lunch hour in tiny little chairs at a tiny little table, Montana says she can’t imagine trying to cram her curriculum into a half-day.

“I mean we’ve even seen it where in first grade, they get 8-10 new students from other towns, and most of those kids have had a half-day program and they end up being the low ten percent of the first graders,” she says.

She explains that even those kids that qualify for federally funded Title I programs, which benefit low-income students see a boost. “Those newer kids that came from other towns that had a half-day they’re actually lower than our title kids, so our title kids look incredible! Every single year we see that.”

Keeping up with the Joneses

Pembroke’s kindergarten even attracts parents from neighboring towns who don’t actually live there. Families will sometimes claim they live with a grand-parent or a friend with a Pembroke address to get their kids into a full day program.

That’s certainly what Mr. Woody, the kindergarten teacher up in Plainfield, is hoping for… though he’d like folks to get into to his class through the traditional route.

“Well, we’re hoping we’re going to put together the best dog-gone kindergarten program in the whole Upper Valley, and people are going to be driving down to Plainfield buying up houses left and right, and we’re going to be busting at the seams!” he says, flipping into full kindergarten teacher performance mode.

Some of those families may soon get full-day kindergarten in their own towns. Since 1999, about five schools a year have been expanding their programs, even without funding from the state.

And as towns increasingly find their neighbors have gone to full-day, pressure from parents to keep up with Joneses could be what pushes New Hampshire schools to keep up with the national trend.