When the rest of the kindergartners at Minnieville Elementary School bounce their way out the door at the end of a half-day of instruction, 20 students in Catherine Kerr's classroom are just settling down to a lunch of chicken sandwiches, tater tots and milk.

Some of those children started the school year unable to recognize their names. The sounds the letters represented were a mystery to them. A few did not know English.

Now, they read their way confidently through a picture book after lunchtime.

"What sound does an H make?" Kerr asked, and the children exhaled in little puffs. When the class separated into groups to practice more with letters and writing, Reagan Carson, 5, launched into the ABC song.

"I know all my letter sounds!" she said.

Ahsees Bashir, 5, used magnetic letters to spell the first name of one of his classmates, 6-year-old Lizbet Reyes. Cindy Campos, 5, who recognized only the letter X when she started the class, stood at an easel and carefully wrote out her name.

"I'm totally thrilled with the progress," Kerr said.

One 5-year-old, Paola San Juan, spoke only Spanish when the year began. Now, she confidently chatters in English and can spell her own name and her mother's, Veronica.

"I hate to call them low-performing students because they're not," Kerr said. "These children just need more experience."

At Minnieville and five other Prince William schools, the children are getting that experience through an extended-day kindergarten program created just for students like them.

Citing budget and space constraints, Prince William doesn't have all-day kindergarten at all schools. But Minnieville -- along with Kerrydale, Kilby, Potomac View, West Gate and Yorkshire elementaries -- use a variety of funding sources to pay for one class of students to get extra hours of schooling.

While at other schools the extended part of the day adds only an hour or two of instruction, at Minnieville, the "extended" day is equivalent to a full elementary school day, five days a week. Minnieville paid for the program with $37,000 in Title I federal funds, which are given to schools with a high number of poor students. The kindergarten class reflects the 650-student school, where about a quarter of children are learning English.

The extended program started in October, allowing teachers and guidance counselors a month to assess the skills of the kindergartners, meet with parents and make sure students were prepared for the long day. The school ordered mats, thinking the children might need a nap. The mats are now stacked in a corner, unused after the first few weeks.

It's not just the students who are expected to work, Principal Jarcelynn Hart said. Parents are also expected to attend at least four workshops during the school year, at which they learn ways to work with their children and help them learn how to read. Some parents who didn't attend the workshops lost their children's place in the program, and other children came in.

The strict rules made Jennifer Carson, Reagan's mother, sit up and take notice. "We were like, 'Oh, yeah, we're going to be there!' "

Carson raves about the program and the difference it has made with her daughter.

"When she came in, she knew two letters and no sounds," Carson said. "Now she knows all her letters and all her sounds. All the parents who I talk to who are at other schools are jealous of us."

Donald Squyres said he was worried when school staff suggested his 6-year-old son Andrew would benefit from the extended day. The school administration reassured him that his son just needed some extra help.

"But the bar has been raised. This should be for all children, to reinforce what they're learning," Squyres said.

All-day kindergarten programs aren't necessary for all students, said Wayne Mallard, the area associate superintendent overseeing Minnieville Elementary. "Each school is different. Not every school faces issues to the extent of a Minnieville or a Kerrydale or a West Gate."

Still, other schools are interested in extended-day programs, Mallard said. Neabsco, Bel Air and Dale City elementaries are among them. "Those schools where we've got an obvious need for additional services, we're looking at this," Mallard said.

Hart would love to see another class of 20 students at Minnieville. She also is working on tracking the students to see how well they perform in first grade and beyond. "Everyone will benefit, all the way up," Hart said.

Silvestre Diaz contemplates what letter is next in the alphabet during all-day kindergarten at Minnieville Elementary.After lunch, teacher Catherine Kerr, above, leads the kindergartners in a story time, during which they learn to identify letters. At right, Paula Sanjaun, 5, works on spelling at one of the learning stations.At left, Madison Steele, in foreground, and her classmates practice writing letters in the air during reading time. Above, Reagan Carson learns letters and sounds. Below, Roy Jones, 5, enjoys his lunch. As part of extended kindergarten, students are served lunch, not just a snack as in other kindergarten classes.