All-Day Kindergarten Expands In N.Va., but So Does the Cost

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Marcus Stotts recently checked out the cheery classroom where he'll be spending more than six hours in kindergarten each day. The curious 5-year-old drew on the white board, peered at shelves filled with books about trucks and farm animals and found the seat with his name tag.

Marcus, who starts today at Fairfax County's Eagle View Elementary School on the first day of Northern Virginia's new school year, is among a growing number of children for whom kindergarten is an all-day affair.

For the first time, all kindergarten students in Prince William County will have as much class time as older students. Fairfax County is adding full-day kindergarten in 21 schools, a shift that makes the program available in about 70 percent of county elementary schools.

Students in the District, Arlington County and Alexandria have full-day kindergarten. Maryland made it mandatory this fall.

Educators say half-day classes are becoming a thing of the past because young students need more than a few hours of class each day to master the building blocks of literacy and math before first grade. That foundation helps prepare them for more difficult work, such as the reading and math tests they will start taking in third grade under the No Child Left Behind law.

Lillie Jessie, principal at Elizabeth Vaughan Elementary in Prince William, said children who spend more time in kindergarten tend to have a better grasp of words and numbers, but just as important, they are more comfortable working with classmates, following instructions and even picking out lunch in the cafeteria.

"They are so much better prepared academically and socially for that first-grade experience," Jessie said, adding that teachers have more time to work one-on-one with children who struggle as well as those who are ready for more challenging lessons. "We have some that come to us reading and some that come up to us without any knowledge of the alphabet," she said.

Most educators agree that full-day kindergarten has its benefits, but a slow transition in Virginia shows the challenge that schools nationwide face as they expand programs. Finding teachers and classrooms carries a large price tag.

In fast-growing Loudoun County, eight schools have full-day kindergarten for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but most kindergartners are in school only for a morning or afternoon session. Schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard said the system, struggling to keep up with growing enrollment, doesn't have the tens of millions of dollars it would take to build new classrooms. Currently, two kindergarten classes -- morning and afternoon -- can use the same space.

Fairfax County schools began shifting to all-day kindergarten in the late 1990s, targeting schools with the greatest number of poor families and children who are beginners in English. The system added programs over time, but officials said the cost of hiring teachers and adding space in schools has slowed the process.

Fairfax is spending about $5.6 million this year to add the program in 21 schools, for a total of 94 countywide. Most of the money pays salaries for teachers or instructional assistants. School officials say it will be more expensive to add the program in the 42 remaining elementary schools because many are short on space and new classrooms may have to be built.

Fairfax school officials hope to have full-day kindergarten throughout the county by fall 2009, at an annual cost of about $45 million. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors supports day-long kindergarten countywide, but a predicted tight budget for the coming year may slow the initiative.

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