Three years ago, full-day kindergarten was rare and, in some circles, rather controversial.

How times have changed.

“I don’t see how they could get anything done in half-day classes,” said Frances Dimery, a kindergarten teacher at Wood Elementary in West Columbia who has never taught anything but full-day. “They just don’t have time.”

The turnaround in the way the program is viewed has been so dramatic that full-day kindergarten will be available for every 5-year-old whose parents want it beginning next year.

This year, 35,718 children attend full-day classes.

Debates about whether 5-year-olds have the stamina for more than six hours of school have hushed. Some questions about the merits of the full-day program were answered in December, when results of the first-grade readiness test showed record success.

Nearly eight of every 10 children tested last fall arrived with the knowledge and physical skills they needed to perform first-grade work. It was the highest percentage of kindergartners judged ready in South Carolina since the test, called the Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery, was first used in 1979.

“I think, in essence, we’re going to continue to see first-grade readiness scores improve,” S.C. Superintendent of Education Barbara Nielsen said. “That allows us to raise standards and become more rigorous.”

With those results, the state Legislature is expected to complete a three-year plan that will pay for full-day kindergarten for all 5-year-olds. The House approved the last phase, a $19.5 million increase over last year, bringing the total cost of the program to $49.7 million, including Education Improvement Act money. The Senate is expected to approve the last phase, as well.

“The benefits are increased time for literacy development, and the practice of the skills,” said Sylvia Ford, early childhood consultant in Lexington 2. “Before, it was a miracle we were able to accomplish what we could.

“Now, we do have more time to work with the children. . . . It’s the step in the right direction, to be preventative, rather than remediating later.”

The S.C. Department of Education quotes a Forbes magazine article that says for every dollar spent on early childhood education, $8 is saved on remediation.

The state education department offers other research to support full-day kindergarten:

* A nine-year study by the University of Ohio found full-day students scored 5 to 10 percentage points higher than half-day students on standardized tests;

* A nine-year study by the New York State Department of Education revealed language and math scores in grades 4 and 8 were significantly higher for students who had attended full-day kindergarten; and

* Researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that full-day kindergarten better prepared children for first grade.

‘A very, very positive story.’ Locally, educators don’t need the research results to be sold on the benefits of full-day kindergarten.

“The big difference teachers are seeing is the opportunity during full-day to address literacy issues not addressed in half-day programs,” said Kevin Swick, an early childhood professor at USC. “It also gives parents a chance to see how important their role is in supporting children in these activities.

“Already in two years . . . we are seeing the results the public was hoping would happen. . . . It’s a very, very positive story for South Carolina and will be for years to come.”

Educators say it’s vital to have the additional contact with children during these formative years.

“They are so bright when they’re little,” said Rose Sheheen, principal of Blaney Elementary in Elgin. “You can teach them so much. . . . Give them twice as much school, and they’ll learn twice as much.”

Cathy Drees, a kindergarten teacher at Blaney, has taught half-day and full-day kindergarten. “You wouldn’t believe the difference,” she said.

Drees’ full-day kindergarten students are reading, speaking Spanish and telling time. They’re even doing a little algebra.

For example, March 31, Drees asked her students to give her a problem, where the answer would be 31. One student responded, “Take 1,000, take away 1,000, plus 10, plus 10, plus 10, plus 1.”

Another suggested, “3 times 10 plus 1.”

“They’re like little sponges, and they just absorb it all,” Drees said.

While parents have the option to choose between full-day or half-day kindergarten, educators are united in their belief that full-day is best.

‘It’s amazing.’ Most districts in the Midlands say all their classes will be full-day next year. However, parents will be allowed to take their children home at what would be a half-day time, which in most cases is about 10:30 a.m. Core subjects are taught in the morning in most schools, with enhancement activities scheduled in the afternoon.

In District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties, officials are waiting to assess the demand for full-day and half-day classes.

Half-way options might include having parents pick up their children early, or offering half-day classes at certain sites where children from several schools could attend.

“We’re planning on full-day programs,” said Valerie Truesdale, chief instructional officer in District 5. “We think our kindergarten programs are so outstanding that every parent will want their children in them full-day.

“The research is clear, that full-day kindergarten provides students with the strong academic base they need for learning in first grade.”

Richland District 1 is seeing that in some of its first-grade readiness scores. While there weren’t substantial gains at every school after full-day kindergarten was started, several notched large gains:

* At Caughman Road Elementary, test scores jumped from 69 percent of children ready for first grade in 1995 to 84.5 percent in 1996;

* At Lewis Greenview Elementary, test scores increased from 54.1 percent to 78.3 percent;

* At Mill Creek Elementary, test scores jumped from 48.6 percent to 60 percent;

* At Satchel Ford Elementary, test scores rose from 72.7 percent to 84.3 percent.

“It really equalizes things out for many children,” said Helen Jones, executive director of elementary school services in Richland 1. “Full-day was brought about because children needed to have that extra time. . . . We hope it will mean children will be better prepared for the formal first-grade experience.”

Space for the full-day kindergarten classes will be an issue at some districts, but most are taking steps to fix that.

For example, Lexington 1 calculates it will need space for 14 new classes and estimates it will cost $73,500 each for the space and furnishings.

But educators say the money is worth it. “I can not say enough good things about it,” said Wood Elementary’s Dimery. “It’s great, the best money we’ve ever spent. . . . It’s amazing.”

Lezlie Patterson covers Richland District 1, Lexington District 4 and schools in Lugoff and Elgin. Call her at (803) 771-8308 or by at (803) 771-8430.Caption: PHOTOS: COLOR, BW1. Buddy Thompson, right, and Devonte James read flashcards at full-day kindergarten at Wood Elementary. TIM DOMINICK/THE STATE 2. Frances Dimery teaches her full-day kindergarten students while reading “The Country Bunny” at Wood Elementary School. TIM DOMINICK/THE STATE

April 5, 1998  State (published as The State)  Columbia, South Carolina
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