Wednesday, March 21, 2007 | 7:22 a.m.
Funding full-day kindergarten is no longer a choice, but an imperative, Nevada's Democratic lawmakers say.
"It's not enough to provide it to some of our disadvantaged students or to the children of more affluent parents," said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, one of the lead sponsors of Assembly Bill 157, which would fund the program statewide. "It should be an opportunity available to all children."
Her Republican colleagues are not as passionate. Gov. Jim Gibbons wants full-day kindergarten in at-risk schools, but to put off until the 2009 Legislature - when there will be more data - a decision on whether to expand the program. Minority Leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas, suggested schools that wish to add full-day kindergarten could apply to become "empowerment schools" and use the resulting money to pay for it.
Nevada is not alone in weighing the benefits of full-day kindergarten. Utah lawmakers expanded their pilot program this month, and at least five other states are considering similar measures. Additionally, nine states require participation in full-day kindergarten.
Over the last decade there have been dozens of studies examining the effectiveness of kindergarten programs, often with wide-ranging results as to the long-term benefits to students.
In one, for instance, researchers found the learning gains made by students in the full-day program equated to an extra month of school.
Some studies found that full-day kindergarten students are better at math and reading at year's end than their peers in half-day programs, said Jerry West, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
There is no strong evidence that those advances are sustained beyond the third grade except, perhaps, for Hispanic students and children from homes where English is not spoken, he said.
West, whose often-cited research includes studies for the U.S. Education Department, said it's important to measure students' skills when they arrive in the fall, as well as when they leave in the spring.
"Children who attended full-day kindergarten may simply have had higher skills at the start than children who attended a half-day program," West said. "In this case, kindergarten may have made no difference at all."
Research must also focus on the quality of the kindergarten experience, as well as the schooling students receive in later grades, as not all programs are the same, West said.
In a 2004 report the Education Commission of the States, a legislative clearinghouse, said, "Experts are now in general agreement there are no detrimental effects to attending full-day kindergarten (but) there is less agreement about the degree to which benefits gained carry forward throughout a student's academic career."
Full-day kindergarten may be a springboard to academic success, but it's apparently of little use if students are diving into an empty pool.
"The fact that achievement gains are not sustained should not be blamed on kindergartens," said professor Sharon Lynn Kagan, associate dean for policy and research at Columbia University's Teachers College. "Maybe there is inadequate follow-up in the later grades. The best hope for long-term academic success is to make sure what comes after kindergarten is equally strong."
It appears many Nevada families have already made up their minds about full-day kindergarten. The program has proved popular in the two largest school districts, Clark and Washoe counties.
Of the 52 schools within Clark County with full-day kindergarten, serving nearly 8,000 students, just five parents opted out of the program. Washoe County's program has been equally popular.
Clark County offers the full-day program for free in at-risk schools. Additionally, 37 schools offer tuition-based full-day kindergarten, at a cost of $300 per month. Many of the so-called pay-to-stay schools have waiting lists.
Full-day kindergarten teachers say they cover more material with their students, and in greater depth. But some educators say full-day kindergarten's greatest rewards won't be reaped unless class sizes are reduced. Kindergarten rooms often have more than 30 students.
At Kirk Adams Elementary School, Principal Lisa Johnson says she considered using her new authority and extra funding as an empowerment school to add full-day kindergarten. But her teachers nixed the idea because it meant doubling class sizes.
Adams kindergarten teacher Christina Brockett has a morning and afternoon class, each with 17 students, which meet for about 2 1/2 hours. With a longer instructional day, Brockett said she would spend more time on small group instruction, reading and writing. Hands-on science instruction would also be a priority .
"We would like to be full-day but not with 35 kids," she said. "Right now, having smaller class sizes is a little more important and justified."
Martha Young, associate provost of the College of Education at UNLV, urges lawmakers not to think in "either/or" terms when it comes to education funding.
"They're not parallel issues at all," Young said. "Full-day kindergarten addresses the point that if you don't give kids a successful start, it's not going to matter what you provide for them at the other end."