Last Tuesday morning, 22 kindergartners at Walton Farm Elementary in Lansdale sat at tables with white boards and dry-erase markers, tapping their fingers as they sounded out words announced by teacher Tammy Swearingen.
“I’m seeing a lot of beautiful Y’s, my friends,” Swearingen said as her students wrote the word yet.
The next word, quit, was trickier. “Why U?” Swearingen asked, reminding students who had skipped the second letter that “U follows Q."
It was the type of exercise that Swearingen, who has taught kindergarten for 30 years, would have been hard-pressed to incorporate in the past, when the North Penn School District offered only half-day kindergarten.
This school year, the Montgomery County district launched a full-day program. Now, "we’re giving them the gift of time to practice skills,” Swearingen said. Before, “I felt like I was presenting, presenting, presenting every day,” with “never time to dig into it.”
It’s one of the latest districts in the region to add full-day kindergarten, responding to research around the importance of early childhood education and ramped-up state standards for young students. Many parents have also clamored for the programs, including those juggling work schedules and seeking consistency for children in full-day prekindergarten.
But although most Pennsylvania districts provide full-day kindergarten, those that don’t say it’s a challenge due to lack of money and space — and question how they would implement a proposal by Gov. Tom Wolf to require it.
Of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, 428 provide full-day kindergarten to all students, according to the state Department of Education. The rest mostly offer half-day, with some districts offering both — though the full-day programs may not be open to all students, the department said.
In New Jersey, 514 school districts offer kindergarten, 20 of which are half-day-only programs, according to the state’s Department of Education.
The states are among eight nationally that don’t require all school districts to provide kindergarten — either half- or full-day — according to the most recent information from the Education Commission of the States.
Wolf wants to change that in Pennsylvania, calling in his budget address for “the expansion of universal, no-cost, full-day kindergarten so that it’s available for every child in our commonwealth." Rick Levis, an education department spokesperson, said the governor wants to require all districts to offer full-day programs through legislation “expected to be introduced in the near future.”
In Perkiomen Valley, which considered adding full-day kindergarten last year, the district decided against the program after determining its elementary students already performed well academically compared with other Montgomery County districts.
“That was a turning point for us: Is it really necessary for us in Perkiomen Valley?” said Laurie Smith, assistant to the superintendent. While “we would love to offer it and think it would be a benefit to all of our students,” Smith said, given the anticipated costs — $700,000, primarily for teachers and transportation — “it didn’t come out to be a top priority.” The district does have full-day instruction for kindergarten students screened as needing additional learning, Smith said.
Money isn’t the only issue. In affluent Lower Merion, which has been grappling with increased enrollment, “we do not have adequate classroom capacity to provide full-day kindergarten," said spokesperson Amy Buckman. The district has been maximizing space in its elementary schools by dividing single classrooms into two, adding modular classrooms at one school, and eliminating art rooms, she said.
“Even if there were funds” to add classrooms, Buckman said, “there isn’t necessarily space to do so.”
Wolf’s budget plan doesn’t include funding designated for full-day kindergarten. The Democrat says that if a charter school reform proposal he backs passes the Republican-controlled legislature, districts will receive an additional $280 million they could use for kindergarten. The prospect for that legislation — which charters oppose — is unclear.
Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said superintendents worry about a kindergarten mandate without additional funding.
“We agree 100%” with the goal, DiRocco said. “It’s how do you go about it in such a way that it doesn’t become a burden for the district.”
Advocates have focused on early childhood education to reduce achievement gaps between students. There are “strong data that early language and literacy skills really do predict later achievement,” said Barbara Wasik, the PNC endowed chair in early childhood education at Temple University.
But full-day kindergarten doesn’t automatically net those benefits, Wasik said. Program quality is key, she said, including “a lot of language interactions between teachers and children” and time for play and socialization.
Districts that have added full-day kindergarten said they took a careful approach. In North Penn, leaders formed a team of 50 — including teachers, reading specialists, and psychologists — to plot out what a full day would look like.
It begins at “exploration stations," with small groups of students doing hands-on activities, followed by a morning greeting.
In Swearingen’s class, students seated in a circle passed a stuffed heart as they each shared how they felt that morning. “I feel surprised, and I feel like eating ice cream now,” said one boy, prompting giggles and “yeahs” from other students.
Parents like the emphasis on social and emotional learning, in addition to academics, said Betty Santoro, North Penn’s director of elementary education. The district’s kindergarten enrollment grew this year with the full-day program, she said — from an average 780 to 800 students to nearly 1,000.
Some parents in districts without full-day kindergarten have been choosing private schools for their full-day programs.
Among them is Christine McGill, who moved to the Council Rock School District from Connecticut a year ago, and whose children have already been in full-day prekindergarten programs. “Being a pretty good school system, we were just surprised that it didn’t have full-time kindergarten,” McGill said.
While her family still chose to move into the Bucks County district and can afford private kindergarten, McGill supports universal full-day kindergarten to give “all the children the same opportunities.” (Council Rock spokesperson Susan O’Grady said the district considered adding full-day kindergarten in 2015, but found the $2.9 million annual cost “exceeds our budgetary capacity.”)
Cari Bryce, a Lower Merion parent who has a child in private full-day kindergarten, said she considers half-day kindergarten “archaic."