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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.

This summer, many Fairfax kindergarten teachers have been preparing for the expansion.

Debra Fulcher, of the Fairfax schools office of early childhood and family services, said teachers have been learning techniques to help children build strengths and catch up where they are behind. Although half-day teachers often focus on all students at once, full-day teachers have more opportunities for small-group or one-on-one lessons.

Rebecca Wyland, who will be Marcus's teacher at Eagle View in Fairfax, showed students and parents around a classroom Thursday decorated with ABC's and a kid-size folding chair made of fabric covered with jumping frogs.

Marcus and his classmates will spend at least two hours each day on reading and writing and an hour on math. There are also lessons in science and social studies and time for students to do art projects, work on laptops or peruse the classroom library.

Wyland, who will work with an instructional assistant, can't imagine squeezing all that in before lunch. She said the extra hours allow her to focus more on the needs of each student. Eagle View opened in fall 2006 with full-day kindergarten.

"We can give them more time to explore things," Wyland said. "Plus, we have time to do the fun stuff."

In the previous school year, Wyland's kindergarten class went on field trips to a museum and the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater. A dentist visited to talk about healthy teeth, and the Daughters of the American Revolution brought their "colonial traveling trunk."

Marcus attended a half-day program at a private preschool. His parents, Dennis and Kathy Stotts, have been helping him get ready to spend the entire day in school. He picked out a Ninja Turtles backpack at Target and got glue sticks and two packs of yellow pencils. The family talked about getting him an alarm clock, but he decided he'd rather have his mother wake him each day.

On Thursday, Marcus met his teacher.

"Look at this, you sit next to Grace and Lance," Kathy Stotts told her son as the two examined name tags on each table and found his seat. "You are going to have some really great friends here. This is so exciting."

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