With unanimous support from the school board, ELCO School District next fall will begin offering full-day kindergarten to all incoming students.

Currently, except in special instances, students attend only half-day kindergarten in the district. A half-day program is standard throughout Lebanon County, with the exception of Lebanon School District, which has already moved to a full-day schedule.

“When districts are able to build a firm foundation for our youngest learners, their success rate in school increases,” ELCO superintendent Julia Vicente told LebTown. “The return in our investment, when we invest in them when they are so young, returns in exponential ways. We know it’s the right thing to do.”

That value is reflected in everything from academic performance to interpersonal relationships, Vicente said.

“It’s in our comprehensive plan,” she added. “This has been one of our goals.”

The reasoning for a full-day plan is manifold, Vicente said.

“I’m excited for extra time for all of the academics. I’m also excited for the time that we will have to build relationships with the children,” Ruthanne Gray, a kindergarten teacher at Jackson Elementary, told LebTown. “We’ll have time for recess, which is very important in the social process of little children. There’s more time to enrich, more time to remediate. … It’s going to be an amazing experience to have the children for a full day.”

“This is my 23rd year of teaching half-day kindergarten, and I am very excited to have this extra gift of time to get through everything,” agreed Michelle Zurick, a kindergarten teacher at Fort Zeller Elementary. “We do get through everything, but it’s not at a pace conducive to learning. They are so excited, they are so curious about everything, it’s wonderful to be able to give that time … and to go deeper into our curriculum.”

A full day, Zurick said, will help teachers meet the needs of all students, and support their individual needs. “It’s so exciting that our board and our administration is so on board with this and is making this happen for our youngest learners.”

Vicente noted that ELCO, for the past three years, has run a pilot program of full-day kindergarten for students who need some extra support in school. The program is called ELCO Ready and has been made available to students based on factors including individual need and screening data.

Fort Zeller principal Jodi Houck said data shows that ELCO Ready supports the notion that a full-day program helps students to be more successful.

Jackson Elementary School principal Tam Hower agreed, noting that students in ELCO Ready “have displayed so much more of their social interaction skills, building their rapport with their peers, with their teachers. They have the time to learn those social skills that our half-day kids may not because of all of the academic content we need to put in.

“We’re helping them be more well-rounded people.”

Assistant superintendent Dr. Barbara Davis said data has shown that ELCO Ready kids who start the year with lower scores begin to catch up to their peers by year’s end. “Their growth is more than double the growth of the students in the half-day program,” she said.

A full-day program will necessitate some changes in the curriculum for kindergarten classrooms, Davis noted. It will allow the district, for instance, to double the time spent on reading and math, as well as expand student time in art, music and physical education.

For instance, students will spend 90 minutes each day reading, up from 40 in the current schedule, and 70 minutes each day learning math skills, up from 30.

“We can go deeper into the curriculum, but also extend the curriculum, Davis said. “We can have more interactive and collaborative activities.”

Administrators noted that the program’s expansion means the district will need more kindergarten classrooms, as well as the teachers to staff them. ELCO currently has five kindergarten classrooms, Davis said, and will expand to nine by next fall. While Fort Zeller has the necessary space for the expansion, the district will add a two-classroom modular unit at Jackson so classroom assignments can be reconfigured.

There will also be additional teachers required for the program, Davis confirmed.

On the other hand, Davis said, the district already has the number of tablets, textbooks and other curricular resources required for the students, although some additional classroom supplies and equipment will be needed.

Besides the benefits to students, Houck said, the full-day program helps parents, too.

“We don’t have a lot of child-care programs for our working parents to utilize,” she explained. “This will alleviate a lot of issues for finding child care.”

She also noted that parents, at a recent Rising Raiders workshop for incoming kindergartners and their families. were asking for a full-day program. “This is something that they’ve wanted for a long time,” she said.

Hower noted that parents will no longer have to provide academic support for their children during the half day when they are home. And, she said, “those kiddos have been shown to be so much more well-equipped when they enter first grade.”

Based on collected data, Hower said, first graders coming in after a full-day kindergarten program “are more prepared to identify sounds and letters, things like that.”

“We’re going to have more time for enrichment for those kiddos who are ready to move on to more things,” added Gray. “We will have more time for remediation. We will see more growth. I believe the first-grade teachers are going to see those kids come in with more social skills, and the academic skills will be even higher.”

Teachers now will be able to go “more into depth” on subjects such as science and social studies, added Gray. Davis said the district will add more STEM instruction — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as well.

Zurick said the gift of additional time will be beneficial to students in many ways, in part simply by giving them room to absorb the things they learn.

“Currently, we are giving them so much information in a half day,” she said. The extra hours will give them more time “to process that information … and use the information in creative ways.”

Eventually, said Davis, “I anticipate this is going to end up impacting the curriculum in first grade. Our students are going to accomplish more in kindergarten, so they are going to have to modify first-grade studies. That will continue as we go up the years, shifting our curriculum to be more rigorous.”

“Full-day kindergarten really transforms the system,” Vicente said. “We’ve had some pretty astounding data as we’ve tested this … to make sure this is right for our community, right for our learners. This will transform our whole K-12 system.”

Vicente said she is “very grateful” to the school board, who passed the program in a 9-0 vote earlier this month. The conversation to make this shift, she added, started seven years ago.

“This is a perfect example of what educating for excellence is about,” she said.

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Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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