Two years ago, Angela Sartain watched her oldest son, Pierce, a graduate of half-day kindergarten, cry over his first-grade homework. Now, her youngest son, Wyatt, is in full-day kindergarten and already reading at a first-grade level at Marana's Desert Winds Elementary School.
Though experts disagree on the benefits of full-day kindergarten, Sartain believes it is making the difference for Wyatt, who is getting twice as much instructional time as Pierce did.
Gov. Janet Napolitano wants every kindergartener in the state to have the same benefits Sartain says Wyatt has.
This is the second year of her push to phase in state-funded full-day kindergarten by 2009.
Her plan comes as Tucson Unified School District considers cutting from a full-day to a half-day program to reduce an expected deficit of $11 million to $12 million next year.
"I saw Pierce having to catch up throughout all of the first grade and it was difficult," Sartain said of her son's experience in the Marana Unified School District. "That was painful for him. It's not fair for him to be behind because he didn't learn everything he needed to in kindergarten."
Napolitano and other backers of full-day programs, including Sen. Toni Hellon, R-Tucson, and Tom Horne, state school superintendent, tout the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten programs compared to half-day ones.
However, the long-term benefits of full-day programs are debatable, with some studies showing any gains achieved in full-day programs fading by third grade.
"You can find lots of anecdotal studies saying, 'Oh, at the end of kindergarten these kids have a benefit,' but the important studies are what do they look like in third grade," said Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix. "The truth is that the kids in half-day programs look exactly the same as the ones who attended full-day programs."
Governor has 5-year plan
Yesterday, Napolitano went before the Senate's K-12 Education Committee to further make her case for a five-year phase-in of statewide full-day kindergarten.
The Associated Press reported that, in the rare gubernatorial appearance before a legislative committee, Napolitano said the extra class time in kindergarten gives young students a jump-start that enhances their learning through subsequent grades.
Spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer told the Tucson Citizen that Napolitano cited the performance of kindergarteners at Lela Alston Elementary School in Phoenix's Isaac Elementary District, where most students made significant improvements in basic learning blocks for education between August and January.
Last year, Napolitano proposed the state fund full-day kindergarten and got legislative approval to fund a full-day program in the state's poorest schools, those in which more than 90 percent of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program.
This year, to keep her phase-in plan on pace, the governor wants to expand the program to schools where at least 80 percent of students eat federally subsidized lunches.
But she must overcome state lawmakers skeptical of investing millions of dollars in a program with debatable results. Estimates from the Governor's Office say the program will cost at least $135 million over the five years. Some critics put the tab at $200 million. Costs beyond that were unavailable.
"What truly makes a difference is a research-based systematic phonics program for K-3," Republican Linda Gray of Glendale said. "If a child does not make adequate progress in any one of these grades, or especially two grades in a row, then the child is not likely to academically catch up to grade level without intensive intervention."
She would rather spend money offsetting an anticipated increase in teacher retirement costs.
Full-day vs. half-day
Most states allow school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, but few require districts to offer it.
The Goldwater Institute recently published a report questioning the benefits of full-day kindergarten. It most notably cited a U.S. Department of Education study released late last year.
That study focused on English-speaking students enrolled in kindergarten during the 1998-99 school year. Researchers found that full-day students tended to score better than half-day students on reading and math tests given at the end of the kindergarten year, but that those academic differences evaporated by the time both groups reached the third grade.
"Unless or until the elementary and secondary school system is improved, it is unlikely that preschool or kindergarten will lead to a measurable improvement in school achievement," states the report "Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten: Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers and Policymakers."
What is less clear is whether full-day programs make a difference for English language learners, something that has not been researched. A federal study on that issue is due out in April.
Officials in the Sunnyside Unified School District, which has a high percentage of students whose native language is Spanish, insist full-day kindergarten is vital to them.
"They're expected to make the same level of progress as a native English speaker," said Jean Favela, Sunnyside's director of language acquisition and development. "They have to do two things: They have to learn content and they have to learn English."
Marana's new program
Many parents and teachers are convinced a full-day program is best.
Wyatt Sartain's teacher, Debbie Sullivan, says none of her students in the Northwest Side district are English language learners, but most are approaching first-grade literacy levels and a few have developed reading skills comparable to second-graders.
"They are way farther along than I could possibly have imagined and I'm actually asking first- grade teachers what I can do," she said. "I am pulling stuff out of my hat to keep them going."
That wasn't always the case for Sullivan, who is the first and only teacher at Desert Winds to have a full-day kindergarten class under the new Marana Unified School District effort.
Parents with kindergarteners at Desert Winds pay $10.50 a day for the full-day program.
Angela Sartain pays nearly $2,000 a year for her son Wyatt to be in the program. Sartain, her parents, mother-in-law and some friends each use the state school tax credit to pay for Wyatt's education.
When Sullivan taught half-day kindergarten, she said she barely had time to cover everything, especially on Fridays when classes were limited to an hour and 45 minutes.
"There are kids in the school who are on the bus longer than they're in the classroom," she said. "I passed kids along to the first grade who couldn't read."
This year will be the first time she can say otherwise, and she credits the full-day program that gives her more than twice the instructional time and half the students to teach.
Sullivan's class consists of 22 students. Desert Winds' other kindergarten classes, offered for half-days only, have the same number of students but, with one class in the morning and another in the afternoon, teachers have as many as 44 students a day.
"I can't think straight when I have 44 kids," she said. "Now I have the time. I know these kids so much more than I've ever known students. It makes a big difference."
"Socially these kids are ready for the full-day time span," said Linda Wilson, who teaches first, second and third grades at Marana's Thornydale Elementary School. "That transition to the full day sets a better tone for the rest of the year."
Preparing students for that transition is a priority for all kindergarten teachers, Sullivan said.
"First grade already has a mold to work on, we just have a lump of clay," she said. "We're taking this clay and, with the help of parents and the school, molding it into something to present to the first grade."
Sartain sees her son Wyatt's reading and math skills improving in Sullivan's class beyond what Pierce achieved in kindergarten.
Pierce "would sit in class and look like he knew what was going on, but really he wasn't getting it," she said. "I wish he had more of what Wyatt has. I think it should be available to everyone and it's not fair that it's not."
Citizen staff writers C.T. Revere and Mary Bustamante and The Associated Press contributed to this article.