"Moving to full-day kindergarten is by far the most important recent development we have made toward improving student achievement and providing a well-rounded experience for students," Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicolas D. Wade said.
"This decision by the Board helps solidify the many significant changes we have made to better our students, our standing as a District and the community as a whole," he continued. "Having this opportunity for our students is significant to their education and social development."
PHOTO: Ms. Liliana Kosek talks with some of her kindergarten students at the Early Childhood Center. The ECC will close after 2019-20 to make way for the full-day program at Elmwood and John Mills. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
No New Taxes Needed
As approved by the Board, the expansion of the kindergarten program will require no new funding by taxpayers.
The District has already budgeted funds for up to five additional kindergarten positions if needed, according to Dr. Wade.
This would be enough to accommodate a total of 200 kindergartners while limiting individual class sizes to no more than 25 students per teacher.
In addition, preschool will remain half day and parents will continue to have a half-day option for kindergarten if they would prefer that their children not receive full-day instruction.
PHOTO: A student is all smiles as he completes an assignment in Ms. Barbara Bocka's afternoon kindergarten class. The District's transition to full-day kindergarten will require no new funding for taxpayers. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
Implementing the Change
The launching of full-day kindergarten will coincide with the debut of an expanded Elm Middle School. Starting in August 2020, the renovated Elm building will house the District's 6th-grade students in addition to 7th and 8th graders.
This in turn will allow kindergarten and preschool classes to be shifted from their current location at the Early Childhood Center building, which the District leases from the Village of Elmwood Park.
Because the Village-owned building is not large enough to accommodate full-day kindergarten, the District will close the ECC after the 2019-20 school year.
Kindergarten will be housed at both elementary buildings, and preschool will be at John Mills.
PHOTO: Students practice their coloring skills in Ms. Kosek's class. Kindergartners will more than double their time in school once the District's full-day program begins in August 2020. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
Expanding Instructional Time
Currently 120 students are enrolled in the District's kindergarten program at the ECC.
A small number of those students (fewer than 20) are in an extended-day program for students needing additional help with math and reading skills.
The rest are in a half-day program in which they attend class for two hours and 35 minutes on regular school days, either in the morning or the afternoon.
Under the new full-day program, the amount of school time for kindergartners would increase to more than six hours per day, including lunch and recess.
Instead of following a schedule unique to the ECC, full-day kindergarten students would have the same schedule as the rest of the District's elementary students.
Said Dr. Wade: "This will maximize the instructional time, make building operations more efficient, and be helpful for most parents when needing to drop off and pick up their children."
PHOTO: Enrichment specialist Ms. Annina Wanzung works with students during her weekly visit to the ECC. When the full-day program is implemented, Ms. Wanzung and other teachers of "specials" will have 40 minutes of instruction time with kindergartners instead of the current 20. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
Academic Benefits of Full-Day Kindergarten
The benefits of more than doubling the school time for kindergartners would be significant, according to ECC Principal Mr. Kevin Seibel.
For example, the ECC is in its first year of teaching new curriculum programs in English language arts (ReadyGEN) and math (GO Math!). The kindergarten staff has had to fit lessons meant for full-day instruction into a half-day format. Such a constraint would no longer be an issue with the new schedule.
"I'm really proud of our teachers for the work they have done in implementing a full-day curriculum into a half-day program," said Mr. Seibel, who will assume other administrative responsibilities within the District after the ECC is closed. "They've done a wonderful job and I couldn't be prouder — which makes me enormously excited about our full-day opportunity."
In another example, the ECC this year has been offering "specials" for the first time — that is, instruction from visiting elementary school teachers in art, music, technology, enrichment and physical education.
"It's been an awesome addition to our program," Mr. Seibel noted.
But specials can only be taught for 20 minutes in the current half-day format. This would increase to the preferred 40 minutes in a full-day program.
"By going to full day we provide the opportunity for our youngest learners to have a solid academic and social foundation," said Mr. Seibel. "Hopefully this will eliminate learning gaps that students enter with and will move them forward so that upon entering first grade they're ready to take on those challenges from day one."
PHOTO: Students participate in their weekly enrichment special with Ms. Wanzung. This year marks the debut of specials for kindergartners in art, music, technology, enrichment and physical education. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
Social-Emotional Benefits of Full-Day Kindergarten
Greater academic opportunities aren't the only benefits students will reap from the change.
As Mr. Seibel explained, a full day of school gives younger children the space to develop their social and emotional skills in a structured and safe environment.
"A half day just doesn't allow the time for kids to be exposed to enough instruction or appropriate social interaction and play, which is a fundamental necessity for children of this age," he said.
"It's imperative that kids have those opportunities for not only the academics but the social engagement the school environment requires," he added, "and having those skills allows students to be so much more successful."
PHOTO: Students gather around Ms. Kosek to practice their reading. This year the District's kindergarten teachers have implemented new curricula in both English language arts and math. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
Other Benefits of Full-Day Kindergarten
Kindergarten teacher Ms. Liliana Kosek pointed out that full-day kindergarten yields another benefit for students — it builds up their ability to do sustained work in a classroom setting.
"Coming in from a half-day kindergarten program, a lot of students don't have the stamina yet for a full-day program," said Ms. Kosek. "In the beginning of the year some of them are still used to naps and not being able to sit still as much."
She continued: "I taught 1st grade at another district where they did have full-day kindergarten, and the students were much more ready for first grade. It's always a big adjustment for kindergartners coming in at the beginning of the year. It's really about building up their stamina, making sure they do have break times and times to play and explore through the classroom."
Parents, too, will benefit from the full-day program, Mr. Seibel said.
"It will allow working parents to have a secure place for their students in an educational setting all day," he said. "Parents will have a solid option."
PHOTO: Ms. Kosek answers a question from one of her afternoon students. The arrival of full-day learning in 2020-21 will provide D401 kindergartners with the tools they need for classroom success in 1st grade. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
Building on Success
The move to full-day kindergarten represents another major initiative by District 401 to ensure a common and equitable learning experience for students within and across elementary buildings.
Examples of other recent and ongoing efforts toward this goal include the following:
► Specials for Kindergarten
As noted above, specials have been introduced to kindergarten students this year, giving them early exposure to systematic instruction in art, music, technology, enrichment and physical education.
Enrichment is now offered as a special for grades 1-2, and additional acceleration opportunities are available for grades 3-6.
Two instructional coaching positions have been created and numerous professional development opportunities are being provided to assist staff in learning and implementing the new curriculum programs.
► Standards-Based Grading
A District committee is developing a standards-based report card for K-6 students that could be piloted in 2019-20 for those who wish to participate.
► Support Floods
Supports, primarily in reading, are being flooded to students in grades K-2 to better prepare them for intermediate grades 3-5.
Placed within this larger context, the transition to full-day kindergarten signals the District's commitment to its vision of creating "an invitation to opportunity" for all students.
"There is palpable excitement about this move, and I am confident our talented staff and administration will continue to provide a quality learning experience for all," said Dr. Wade of the impending change. "I believe we have addressed some of the most significant barriers prohibiting our ability to realize this opportunity, and I am confident the District, the Board and the community will continue to work together to further enhance the learning environment and experience for all of our students."
Added Mr. Seibel: "The ECC staff is super excited. They know the benefits for the kids. With the inclusion of full-day kindergarten, I think we're going to be a very sought-out community to live in. We have good schools right now, and our pathway is on track to improve them immensely. As a resident myself I'm excited about the things we're doing. It's going to be awesome."
PHOTO: A student in one of Ms. Bocka's kindergarten classes greets a visitor with a friendly wave. When the full-day program begins in 2020-21, the District will be able to accommodate up to 200 kindergartners while limiting class sizes to no more than 25 students per teacher. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).