Five local school districts are ushering in new or expanded all-day kindergarten programs this week in preparation for the new Common Core State Standards and in response to parents' and administrators' urging to keep pace with a national trend.
But the first day of kindergarten hasn't changed with the expansion to full-day programs; 5- and 6-year-olds still left their parents behind with mixed feelings all around, but this year they will be at school for about six hours instead of 2½, with more time for reading and math that won't come at the expense of art, music and gym.
Jackie Flakus, who has taught kindergarten at Ledyard Center School for 15 years, said she is thrilled to be able to have her kids for an entire school day. With the former abbreviated schedule, she said, her classes were "on rush mode."
"We need it," she said. "We need the time to do things the way they're supposed to be done."
On Wednesday morning, Flakus greeted her new charges with a ready smile and a soothing voice, guiding students with backpacks nearly as large as themselves to their seats and away from emotional parents.
"It's OK," she told 4-year-old Hadley Huebner, who hesitated in letting Flakus show her to a table filled with nametags. "You'll be able to give Mom and Dad a hug before they go."
Gary and Heather Huebner said their daughter had been "jumping around all summer," and while there were some tears, they were certain she was ready. "We think it's the best thing for her," Gary Huebner said.
As of the last academic year, 103 school districts, seven charter schools and 11 magnet schools in the state already provided full-day kindergarten, accounting for 74 percent of all kindergartners in the state. With the start of this school year, all local districts have adopted all-day kindergarten programs.
'We have so much to teach'
Ledyard's Board of Education unanimously approved its all-day kindergarten in December, driven in large part by the new Common Core, which imposes new, rigorous math and reading benchmarks.
With the half-day program, classes had just two hours of instructional time, which Superintendent Michael Graner said was "not acceptable." Now, 165 kindergarteners will have a full hour and a half each for reading and math spread throughout the day, plus time for art, music and physical education.
Graner said the hiring of four more kindergarten teachers, for a total of nine, cost $205,000. The program is funded by Title I grant money as well as the savings from eliminating mid-day bus service and from cutting down on some energy and materials costs.
In Norwich, all-day kindergarten is expanding beyond the state grant-funded programs planned for three schools to include all seven elementary schools, although not yet for all children. Full-day kindergarten started last year at John B. Stanton School, funded through the Commissioner's Network School state grant, and generated immediate results, with students reading at first-grade level by the end of the year.
The expansion will unfold according to a complicated plan that features a combination of full-day and half-day kindergarten classes at four schools, a lottery system and a waiting lists for openings. Superintendent Abby Dolliver said once all kindergarten registrations are received, she will know how many half-day classes will be needed and whether some students can be moved into full-day sessions in other schools.
Dolliver said she was not surprised to see an overwhelming interest in full-day kindergarten, which helps families with child care schedules and has academic benefits.
"We have so much to teach, and we want to have the kids (for) a longer period of time," Dolliver said. She said she hopes for enough funding next year to make the program universal.
Full-day kindergarten survived Montville's flat-funded Board of Education budget this year. Keeping the program in the budget was a priority, Superintendent Pamela Aubin said, because research has shown it improves students' ability to work independently and reduces the number of children referred to special education.
Four sections of kindergarten will be offered at each of the district's three elementary schools, Acting Superintendent Brian Levesque said, expanding on the three sections apiece last year.
Levesque said the enrollment is around 180, much higher than expected, and he suspects that children are enrolling who might otherwise be sent to magnet schools with full-day programs.
Like other districts' superintendents, he said that without full-day kindergarten, the additional programming the new academic standards requires would have reduced time for art, music, physical education and even recess.
Social, academic benefits
The East Lyme Board of Education approved full-day kindergarten last year with support from parents and staff and a recommendation from a special committee.
"It was important to give them a great start," Superintendent James Lombardo said.
Previously, the district offered a kindergarten enrichment program for which parents paid a fee, but now all students will have the same opportunity, Assistant Superintendent Brian Reas said.
Lesson plans will incorporate more time for science, social studies, language arts and math as well as field trips. Instructors have close to six hours to teach in-depth subjects and projects, compared to just two hours last year, he said.
"We're really excited to be able to do more work that is project-based and interdisciplinary (and) that is very developmentally appropriate for (the) kindergarten level," he said.
Lombardo said the new standards shift curriculum requirements — particularly in math — to earlier grades.
Parents who sent their children off to Flanders Elementary School Wednesday morning on the school bus then went to the school to greet them as they got off the bus. Many spoke in favor of the full-day program.
Pamela Dhillon, who was waiting with Mike Whitley for their daughter, Avah Whitley, 5, said she had advocated for full-day kindergarten at town meetings and was excited for the social and academic benefits of the full-day program, particularly with the new state standards. "I think she's ready for it," said Dhillon.
Kate Thoms was emotional at seeing her youngest daughter, Ruby, 5, leave for kindergarten, but she was happy for her.
"I think it'll provide a more comprehensive education with a better platform for reading and arithmetic," she said.
In Stonington, the idea of all day-kindergarten has been discussed quietly for years, sometimes as part of an elementary school renovation project, but the idea never went forward because of concerns about the cost.
That all changed with the hiring of Van Riley last year as schools superintendent. When he proposed his first budget in January, it called for all-day kindergarten at an additional cost of only $75,000 for materials, supplies and paraprofessionals — a long way from the hundreds of thousands of dollars originally envisioned.
Students and parents were to meet individually with teachers and tour classrooms on Wednesday and today. On Friday, they will all be together in the classrooms for the first time.
West Vine Street and Deans Mill schools each have four kindergarten classrooms. The extra space was created by transferring preschool classes to the administration building and the high school, where programs also can be developed for older students in child care and for early childhood education.
The additional 4.5 teachers needed were transferred from existing staff to cover the longer sessions.
"We had been talking about this for years. We just had to find a way to do it," Riley said. "We're very excited about it."
Staff writers Claire Bessette, Kelly Catalfamo and Joe Wojtas contributed to this story.