On a recent morning, kindergartners in Hollie Citerone's class at the Southeast Delco School District Kindergarten Center settled in for "kid writing," a daily activity in which the children draw a picture, create a story about it, and write the sentences that make up the story.
Seven children sprawled on a rug and opened their books to pages on which they had drawn pictures. With help from Citerone, they wrote their stories, sounding out words and referring to "helper" words posted on the wall.
The activity is one of several Citerone is able to teach now that the district has moved from part-day to full-day kindergarten - an expansion made possible with the help of state Accountability Block Grants.
Last year, 53,000 children in the state attended full-day kindergarten funded in part with the grants, which began under Gov. Ed Rendell in 2004-05.
Now Gov. Corbett, who campaigned as a supporter of early-childhood education, has proposed eliminating the grants to save $260 million. Last year, about $200 million of that went to early-education programs, including to expand kindergarten to full-day.
Enrollment in full-day kindergarten has grown from 35 percent of students to more than 68 percent since the state started the grants, according to Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Philadelphia could lose $55 million in block grants, of which the city used about 90 percent to fund full-day kindergarten for nearly 13,000 students.
Corbett wants to cut funding for public schools by 11 percent, a prospect that leaves districts scrambling to figure whether they can preserve full-day kindergarten.
In a part-day program, Citerone said, there was not enough time to do much writing. The difference by the end of the year is dramatic, she said. Previously, Citerone said, she might have one student in a class reading by the end of the year.
"I didn't have readers for 22 years," she said. "Now, over 80 percent go into first grade reading on level or above level. There's really no comparison. I never thought I'd have children reading like that before."
Though advocates for early-childhood education praise Corbett for preserving most state funding for prekindergarten programs, Head Start, and child care in his budget proposal, many say eliminating the Accountability Block Grants would be a mistake.
"We are deeply concerned that many children will not be able to benefit from full-day kindergarten programs," said Joan Benso, president and chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. "Like pre-K and child care, full-day kindergarten is a proven investment."
"If there's one area of education where we have the most evidence, it's high-quality early-childhood education," said Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action, a Philadelphia nonprofit. "Cutting the districts' ability to fund full-day kindergarten flies in the face of everything we know about the importance of investing in children's education at a very early age."
The state's acting education secretary, Ronald Tomalis, said it was a difficult budget and that many difficult decisions had to be made.
"There are at least 16 different possible uses of money under the Accountability Block Grant program," Tomalis said, noting that Corbett wants to preserve other types of funding dedicated solely to early-childhood education. He said Corbett also sought to increase formula funding to the schools to make up for the loss of federal stimulus aid.
Bristol Township School Superintendent Samuel Lee said that he hoped to preserve full-day kindergarten but that moving it back to part-day was "a distinct possibility." More than 500 children are in the program.
"It provides a significant cost savings moving forward to have full-day kindergarten," he said. "It helps us identify kids who may need special services, remediation."
In the Chichester School District, the grants pay for half of the kindergarten program to be full-day. (The district pays for the other half.)
Returning to a part-day program would require rewriting the curriculum, Superintendent Barbara DiMarino said.
She said the school had not decided whether it could keep full-day kindergarten, but she has started warning parents. "I don't think parents understand how deep these cuts are going to be," DiMarino said.
At Southeast Delco, Christy O'Neill recently wrote a thank-you letter to school officials about her son Connor's full-day kindergarten.
When O'Neill learned her son would be in full-day kindergarten, she resisted the move, fearing that Connor, who had been in part-day prekindergarten only three days a week, would not be ready.
Having seen how much her son has learned and how much he loves school, she strongly advocates full-day kindergarten.
"It just would be a shame to have it cut, just because they are there learning so much," O'Neill said.