Full-day kindergarten: primary equity in Clark County schools

It's universal in Evergreen district, where it has improved reading skills, but it's offered only at some schools in Vancouver

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Before Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver began offering universal full-day kindergarten, 50 percent of children in the half-day program were reaching benchmarks in reading. Now 85 percent of kindergartners do.

"About half of our students are reading at a higher level than that, with greater comprehension," said Scott Munro, Evergreen's director of elementary education.

Evergreen, with about 26,000 students, is one of the two largest school districts in Clark County. The next biggest, Vancouver Public Schools, just across town, serves 23,000 students. In that district, not all kindergartners have access to full-day instruction, which research shows boosts academic and social development.

Washington began paying for full-day kindergarten at the poorest schools in 2007. That state funding enabled Vancouver Public Schools to offer free full-day kindergarten at six ele

mentary schools with high poverty rates. At the four schools serving the most affluent population, parents can pay $2,900 a year for a full-day program. Yet neither option exists at 11 other elementary schools, most with poverty rates higher than 50 percent.

"The community seems to be content with that situation," said Kathy Gillespie, president of the Vancouver school board. "We're all waiting for the state to follow through with funding."

Evergreen decided not to wait. It cut its budget in other areas to offer universal full-day kindergarten beginning in 2010.

"It was just something the superintendent and school board wanted to commit to, and they made it happen," said Scott Munro, Evergreen's director of elementary education.

Vancouver instead has put a priority on smaller class sizes, Gillespie said.

"The issue of equity really rests squarely on the shoulders of our state Legislature," she said.

The state Supreme Court said as much in its 2012 McCleary decision that requires the state to fully fund K-12 education, including full-day kindergarten, by 2018. The state Legislature still hasn't reached agreement on the budget that would affect the next academic year. Various proposals would add full-day kindergarten programs by working their way down a list ranking Washington elementary schools by poverty rates.

A consensus budget is likely to add funding for full-day kindergarten in at least one Vancouver school, Lincoln Elementary, where nearly 70 percent of students receive free- or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Alternate days confusing, upsetting

Evergreen backed into its full-day kindergarten approach after another cost-saving move backfired. The year before, Evergreen adopted a complicated alternate-days schedule to save about $500,000 in midday school bus routes required to collect and return morning and afternoon kindergartners. But the on-and-off pattern confused and upset families.

Rather than revert to the morning-afternoon half-day schedule, Evergreen instead chose to absorb the cost and become Southwest Washington's first school district to provide universal full-day kindergarten.

To cover the $3.5 million cost, the district eliminated K-5 planners at the elementary schools, shifted teaching coaches from the administrative corps back into the teaching ranks, and squeezed money from energy savings.

More districts are following Evergreen's lead by stepping up and providing universal full-day kindergarten even before the state fully funds it. The Spokane school board voted to do so just last month.

Others, like Vancouver, have supplemented offerings by asking parents to foot the bill. The Battle Ground School District offers tuition-based programs at half of its six elementary schools. Without state funding, it seemed like the best course of action based on parent interest, said Jill Smith, the district's director for teaching and learning.

The district tries to level the field by using grant money to offer full-day kindergarten to at-risk students, Smith said.

Battle Ground first offered full-day kindergarten at Maple Grove Primary two years ago. At the beginning of the school year, 40 percent of the students were identified as needing intensive instruction. By March, only 4 percent needed the extra help, Smith said.

"It's really impressive — the academic growth for kids who are struggling the most," Smith said.

Research backs that observation. When kids get more instruction, they learn more, said Keith Zvoch, an associate professor at the University of Oregon. Full-day kindergarten, however, does not inoculate children against other disadvantages they experience, he said. That's why gains that low-income children make in extended-day kindergarten classes tend to fade as they get older.

"Full-day kindergarten is not a vaccine," said Zvoch, who has authored two studies on the topic. "But if they didn't have it, they'd be further behind."

This is why the state and most individual school districts have focused on offering full-day kindergarten at the poorest schools. But Vancouver may be reaching a tipping point.

If the state budget ends up funding full-day kindergarten for all but a few Vancouver elementary schools, the district may consider offering it universally, said Gillespie, the school board president.

"Equity is a very important value in the district," Gillespie said. "When we can offer something to every student, we want to do that. … It's a hard balancing act when we've been consistently underfunded."

Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516; erin.middlewood@columbian.com.