Major changes made to Monticello half-day kindergarten program

By a unanimous decision, the Monticello School Board has voted to eliminate the district’s formal half-day kindergarten program beginning next school year.
With the state funding all-day kindergarten starting this fall, district officials have been mulling over the decision for several months.
A task force was created to study the options and seek the opinion of next year’s kindergarten parents.
Board Chairman Robbie Smith said last Monday as little as 3 percent of next year’s kindergarten families indicated a firm preference or expressed their desire for a half-day option.
In making its decision, Johnson said the task force considered this question: “What does it mean to be first grade ready?”
The task force consulted with kindergarten and first grade teachers and came up with a list they could agree on, listing attributes of readiness such as meeting benchmarks in literacy and math, being exposed to benchmarks in other subjects, being socially and emotionally prepared, able to stay on task and work independently, among other attributes.
With the list complete, task force members then asked themselves and teachers whether these goals could be adequately accomplished in a half-day setting. Johnson said the consensus was no, they could not.
“We very seldom get the opportunity of time, and we wanted to do the best we could with it,” Johnson said. “Kindergarten is a very different place than it used to be,” he said. “The academic expectations are greater, but we haven’t given them any time.”
The idea of compromise, communication and playing well in the sandbox are skills kids take with them the rest of their lives, Johnson said. However, in order to accomplish academic goals, get-along-with-others skills can get pushed aside, especially the types of traits found on the popular list “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
With so many standards placed on today’s kindergartners, teachers say it’s a race from the time half-day kindergarten students come in the door to the time they leave because there is so much pressure to get through all the necessary information.
Because of this, Johnson recommended all incoming kindergartners be placed in an all-day kindergarten program, with the option for parents to pick their child up halfway through the day if they feel their child is not ready for a full day of school.
The release time for these students would be similar to that of the current half-day program, he said. The district will no longer provide mid-day transportation, and students who go for only the morning would be dispersed equally among the kindergarten classrooms. The district will maintain their current classroom sizes of no more than 22 kindergartners per class, Johnson said, adding the half-day option would bring some additional expectations for parents to help their students at home, since the school can’t guarantee all necessary curricula will be covered in the mornings.
Additionally, Johnson  said the district doesn’t  want to rush the students through material. Johnson said students who stay all day they will benefit from a kindergarten experience that allows more time for learning important life skills and for practicing 21st Century skills such as creativity, collaboration, technology skills, self discovery and others. He also said it allows more time for practice and intervention when needed.
“The afternoon is not just extra, it’s really part of the core of what we do,” Johnson said.
The best thing about the task force recommendation, Johnson said, is that educational options exist to be flexible.
While parents cannot switch easily back and forth between half-day and full-day, changes can be made if needed or wanted by having a meeting with the teacher and school principal.
For instance, Johnson said a student might start the year as a half-day student but be ready to go full days at some point. There isn’t usually the availability to make changes like this mid-year when students are placed in either a half-day or full-day classroom, he said. Or they could pull a child back to a half-day if the child is having too difficult of a time, such as if a child is accustomed to napping in the afternoon and isn’t doing well without it.
Boardmember Jill Bartlett said she wanted to stress to parents how much effort and thought went into this decision, and she feels this recommendation is the best option available to the district and its students.
Boardmember Jim Lindberg concurred, saying the best thing he sees is the increased opportunity for individualized instruction. He said he’d also like to see kindergarten classroom numbers lowered to below 20 to strengthen individualized instruction.
“I talked to many teachers in both kindergarten and first grade, and they really see the value in all day,” said Robbie Smith, board chair. “I think more time with these kids does make them first grade ready.”
In other business, the board:
• Approved the following donations: $700 from Scholarship America to the high school to help cover the cost of field trip transportation fees, $2,117 from Monticello’s Girls Lacrosse Club and $4,108 from the Boys Lacrosse Club to the high school activities office for the purchase of lacrosse equipment.
• Approved a calendar adjustment that adds Friday, Feb. 14 as a make-up school day due to January’s cold weather closings and school delays. This will be an early release day for the district’s students. Morning kindergarten students will stay until 12:45 p.m. along with the rest of the elementary age students.
The next board meeting will take place at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18 in the middle school’s boardroom.

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.