Full-day kindergarten programs keep growing in suburbs

Though kindergarten remains optional in Illinois, full-day sessions are increasingly the norm in the suburbs, gaining favor with parents and educators alike.

Numerous suburban school districts have shifted from half- to full-day kindergarten within the past two years. Others are considering it, citing research that students do better academically in later grades with more engagement at an early age.

"There is a recognition nationwide of the importance in investing in early childhood education - not just kindergarten, but preschool as well," said Tony Sanders, CEO of Elgin Area School District U-46, which last week rolled out full-day kindergarten classrooms for more than 2,500 students in 40 elementary schools.

In Illinois, parents may enroll their children in half- or full-day sessions - or wait until first grade. For kindergartners, four hours is considered a full day and two hours counts as a half-day.

Roughly 79 percent of kindergartners statewide are considered full-time, according to the state board of education.

Nationally, 34 states require school districts to offer half-day kindergarten, 11 states and the District of Columbia mandate full-day kindergarten, and five states do not require districts to offer kindergarten at all, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Yet, participation rates are staggering in full-day programs. In this inaugural year for U-46, roughly 98 percent are enrolled in full-day kindergarten, while at Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, which adopted full-day kindergarten last school year, fewer than five students out of 1,500 chose the half-day option.

  Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders assists a kindergartner at Centennial School in Bartlett. Brian Hill/

Kindergarten matters

The Common Core State Standards - voluntarily adopted by 42 states and the District of Columbia - provide college and career-ready benchmarks for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Building these skills early and developing social/emotional competencies are critical for proficiency in the later years, experts say.

"You see so many students coming in at such different levels," Sanders said.

"When you have students starting their first grade, if they come in at the same level playing field ... to me it's a no-brainer that this is going to make a difference in the achievement of students."

The percentage of kindergartners enrolled in half-day versus full-day programs nationwide has exploded to 77 percent in 2013 from 28 percent in 1977, according to the nonprofit Child Trends.

Yet, research provides conflicting views on the benefits of full-day kindergarten and whether its positive effects last.

Child Trends found children who spend time in full-day kindergarten programs are more likely to devote time every day to reading, math and social studies. Short-term gains include stronger academic performance, with those who attended full-day kindergarten scoring higher on standardized math and reading tests through second grade. But the research is inconclusive on longer-term impact, according to Child Trends' report.

It also suggests kindergartners in full-day programs were more likely to have good attendance, self-confidence, and the ability to work and play with others, but less likely to have a positive attitude toward school.

Two state associations representing principals and superintendents have thrown their support behind full-day kindergarten, which is a goal of the Illinois Vision 20/20 initiative for education reform.

"We are very much in favor of this and would be favorable of the state providing the resources for all school districts to be able to do it," said Jason Leahy, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association.

  Chloe Fox, 5, helps her mom, Laura, unpack her school supplies during an open house for her full-day kindergarten class at her Libertyville school. The district started optional, fee-based, full-day kindergarten classes at its four elementary schools two years ago. Paul Valade/

Costs a deterrent

If there's a deterrent to launching full-day sessions, it's a lack of state funding and the costs of building extra classrooms to accommodate full-time kindergartners, as well as hiring new teachers for districts that don't have huge cash reserves.

U-46 spent $9.3 million to add 26 classrooms at three elementary schools, partly to accommodate full-day kindergarten, while hiring 46 new teachers.

Officials at Arlington Heights School District 25 this year will be considering the costs and feasibility of providing full-day kindergarten - stemming from a recent survey that found it was top on parents' wish-list.

And Palatine Township Elementary District 15 will be seeking voter approval in November to borrow $130 million to build two new schools, freeing up space in the district's 15 elementary schools to accommodate roughly 1,400 students in full-day kindergarten classrooms.

"We would have to double the number of kindergarten teachers," said Superintendent Scott Thompson, estimating an added cost of roughly $600,000 yearly.

Thompson said children who are at-risk - such as bilingual and special education students - need that academic boost provided through an extended kindergarten day to get caught up with their privileged peers.

"Our kids are just being shortchanged," he said. "We have always been viewed as a leading school district in the state, and we think that we are falling behind not having a full-day kindergarten option."

Kindergartners at Aldrin Elementary School in Schaumburg listen to their teacher on their first day of full-day kindergarten, which debuted last school year. Courtesy of Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54

Fees: $50 to $2,450

Registration fees for full-day kindergarten can vary significantly - ranging anywhere from $50 yearly at District 54 to $2,450 yearly at Downers Grove Elementary District 58, where it is offered as an optional "enrichment" program for at-risk students.

District 54 Superintendent Andrew DuRoss said officials decided to provide "free access, full-day kindergarten for all" as an investment in students, which already has paid off.

"Last year was the highest proficiency levels we have experienced, as well as the highest growth data," he said.

Officials took roughly $20 million from reserves to build an early childhood center in Schaumburg to provide additional support for at-risk and special needs students, freeing up space at its 27 elementary schools for full-day kindergarten.

The district also hired 37 additional kindergarten teachers - a cost of roughly $1.4 million yearly in salaries. Some of those costs are state-reimbursable.

In District 58, which qualifies for less than $5 million in state funding yearly, officials are sticking with having parents pick up the tab, for now.

The $2,450 fee for full-day kindergarten enrichment covers additional personnel and consumable and classroom material costs, and is comparable to similar programs in the area, said Matt Rich, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Parents sought the kindergarten enrichment - including more emphasis on STEM or science, technology, engineering and math, as well as English reading and writing, physical education and music - and are willing to pay for it, he said. Last year, about 70 percent chose that full-day option. Students eligible to participate in the federal free- and reduced-fee lunch program could get fee waivers, Rich said.

And though it's not in the offing, Rich acknowledged, "There has been a great desire for district-funded full-day kindergarten."

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.