Day schools on cutting edge of full-day kindergarten trend
By Deborah Moon Seldner
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Portland's Jewish day schools not only are ahead of the state's public schools in following the national trend to full-day kindergarten, they long have been at the leading edge of that trend.
Nationally, 60 percent of kindergartners attend a full-day program, though only about 15 percent of Oregon's elementary schools offer that option. Two Oregon lawmakers propose mandating full-day kindergarten starting next year, but they offer no funding source. In 1976, North Carolina became the first state to make full-day kindergarten universally available. Now, nine states require districts to offer full-day kindergarten.
At Portland Jewish Academy, full-day kindergarten has been standard for at least 25 years. Maimonides Jewish Day School has offered full-day kindergarten for at least 15 years, though this year the school started offering accommodations for some parents seeking a slightly shorter day.
"At the local level, many districts have begun implementing full-day kindergarten programs, regardless of state law, to meet the demands of parents and the needs of children," according to a 2004 report by the Education Commission of the States based in Denver, Colo.
Numerous studies show that full-day kindergarten students experience significant academic and social gains. Studies of the same groups of students over time have shown that students who participated in full-day kindergarten displayed more independent learning, classroom involvement and work productivity than those who had attended part-day kindergartens. For working parents, full-day kindergarten offers lower child-care costs and fewer transitions for their children.
"Play is the work of children" is a saying that rings true with Patricia Schwartz, principal of PJA's K-8 program.
"It could be added that work takes time," Schwartz said. "An all-day kindergarten gives children the luxury of time and the opportunity to engage in 'deep' play, the play that leads to learning."
"Kids learn by doing," explained Schwartz. "Kindergarten can supply rice tables, water play and other experiences that engage children in learning math through experience--volume, measurement, addition--and in learning firsthand the physics of water. But they need time to work with theories, experiment with ideas and make the concepts their own."
At Maimonides Day School, Director Devora Wilhelm said she fully believes in the benefits of full-day kindergarten. Yet, for the first time, the school is offering a half-day option in addition to its standard full-day program.
"I believe in the benefits of full-day kindergarten, but if parents are at home and are willing and able to spend quality time with their children, I think we need to accommodate their need to spend more time with their children before they are 'institutionalized' into years of school," said Wilhelm. "I've learned flexibility is the key. But when I talk about a half day, I'm talking about four and one-quarter hours, not the two and one-half hours at public school."
Maimonides kindergarten teacher Nicki Roggenkamp said she thinks children get both academic and social benefits from a longer program. Roggenkamp has taught in preschool through third grade since the 1970s.
"If we want kids to progress at a higher level of thinking, I think it (full-day kindergarten) is needed," she said. "They are at an age when their brains are soaking up information."
Maggie Little-Reece, who started teaching kindergarten at PJA nine years ago, said she doesn't know how teachers in half-day programs can do music, art, dance, physical education, recess and snack and still have time to meet all the state's benchmarks for kindergarten. She said with the full-day program, she doesn't feel she has to rush students through each project--she has the luxury of allowing them to pursue their own interests.
"We're able to do more student-led activities," she said. "If four or five children are interested in paper airplanes, I'm able to say, 'OK, let's go there.'"
A few years ago several students started to build a "city" for a stuffed animal in the classroom. Little-Reece said she was able to drop her plans and support the students in the creation of "Super Bee City."
"Suddenly all the students were involved," she said. "I provided materials and asked challenging questions. We did lots of writing about Super Bee City and had lots of signs."
Students spent about three weeks building and decorating buildings and constructing roads. The city ultimately included homes, stores, a bank, a planetarium, a synagogue, a cemetery, and a skyscraper complete with pulley-operated elevators.
"Every kid could take what they were really interested in and go with it," Little-Reece explained. "One kid was interested in money and accounting, so he was the banker. One boy was interested in planets, so we went to the library for research and then built a planetarium. -?? The cooperation was amazing."
PJA's other kindergarten teacher, Celinda Llanez, has taught both full-day and half-day kindergarten. Last year she taught a half-day program in North Clackamas. Previously she taught full-day kindergarten in Texas for six years.
"I feel like you can go more in depth with different aspects of the curriculum when you have a full day," said Llanez. "When you have a half day, you have to spread things out over several days, and the continuity is lost."
She said field trips are also much easier in a full-day program.
"Have you ever tried to go to the zoo in a half day? It is so difficult," she said.
Llanez said she thinks PJA's full-day kindergarten hits just the right mix for 5-year-olds. In Texas, she said, the program was too academic. Recess and snack time had been eliminated.
"It feels more well-rounded here and geared toward what a child needs," she said.
Schwartz agreed that kindergartners need a mix of activities and activity level during the day. And she said that PJA's teachers are very sensitive to the needs of students.
"The rhythm of the day is not high intensity all day," she said. "They play and they rest."
Located in Southwest Portland, PJA offers programming from preschool through high school.
Five-year-olds can take advantage of PJA's full-day kindergarten. Four-year-olds and younger 5-year-olds have the option of a part-day at the school's Early Childhood Learning Center or a full-day "transitional kindergarten."
Having PJA's full-day kindergarten as part of a larger environment that includes preschool through high school also has significant advantages. Kindergartners have ready access to the developmentally appropriate, scaled play structure that is shared with preschool. They also have "buddies," third-grade students who read to them, do art projects and help them with conflict resolution.
Working parents appreciate that full-day kindergarten students are in a safe environment all day long. Aftercare is available at PJA until 6 p.m.
PJA still has openings in kindergarten, as well as some other grades. For enrollment information, call admissions coordinator Linda Nemer Singer at 503-535-3599.
Maimonides Jewish Day School also has openings in preschool through middle school. For more information, call 503-977-7850.