Kindergarten debate reignites old battles

By Marsha Sutton

The recent debate over full-day kindergarten in the Solana Beach School District had the same emotional ferocity I remember from 10 years ago when Del Mar Union School District parents and teachers tackled the issue.

I recall one Del Mar parent standing up at a school board meeting to argue in favor of keeping half-day kindergarten, shouting, “It works! It works! It works!”

This argument was also used, if more diplomatically, by some Solana Beach parents who asked SBSD trustees why they want to fix something that’s not broken.

These “broken-fixed” sound bites, intended to maintain the status quo, trivialize meaningful discussion of innovation in education.

This simplistic approach also creates a false dichotomy by presenting the situation as either nonfunctional or perfect. Some things are working, yes, and some things aren’t. But everything, whether broken or not, can be made better. And there are shades of gray.

But what’s really wrong with this argument in this particular case is that it misses the point completely. Solana Beach got it; Del Mar never has.

Full-day kindergarten provides equity in educational opportunities for all children, regardless of background and family income. It’s above all else a social justice issue.

Solana Beach trustees voted to make the last of all the district’s kindergarten programs full day because of the need for all children, no matter cultural or socio-economic status, to have equal access to the highest quality education possible. Equity was the over-riding factor.

In past board-level discussions in Del Mar about full-day K (which was rejected), the issue of equity barely came up.

Alison Wishard Guerra, a researcher and assistant professor in the Education Studies department at the University of California San Diego, has studied whether full-day kindergarten is in the best interests of children.

She said half-day kindergarten programs should not be available only to parents with the means and inclination to pick their kids up midday, or for parents who can “negotiate additional child care arrangements and augment their children’s academic learning through out-of-school enrichment activities and structured learning activities in the home.”

As the mother of an incoming Solana Beach kindergartner, her findings were written for SBSD, but her points apply equally to Del Mar and other communities.

Does every Del Mar family have the means to provide learning and social opportunities for their kindergarten children each afternoon after early dismissal? Does every Del Mar student have enriching vacations and frequent outings to museums and concerts? Does every Del Mar student speak fluent English? Does every Del Mar student attend pre-school before coming to kindergarten?

If not (and the answer is obviously not), then Del Mar needs to address the inequity inherent in its kindergarten half-day program, a schedule that only benefits families able to afford the time and money to enrich their children’s afternoons with social and intellectual stimuli.

One might argue that Solana Beach has more low-income and English learner students than Del Mar. But if Del Mar has even just one, isn’t that reason enough?

One might also argue that every kindergartner in Del Mar is dismissed at the same time so no one child is treated better than another. But this is disingenuous, because not every child gets the same educational advantages in the afternoons that other children get. How is that equal?

Resistance to change can be a powerful force

I’ve fought this battle twice before in the Del Mar district and lost both times, against a vocal minority of parents and clear majority of teachers who like things just fine the way they are.

But I’m giving it another shot because the social justice argument that persuaded courageous SBSD trustees to move forward and approve full-day kindergarten is just too compelling to ignore.

Of note is the fact that many parents who favored full-day kindergarten in Solana Beach said they did not speak out because they felt intimidated by parents who aligned with teachers to support the status quo. No parent wants to disagree publicly with teachers.

This is particularly noteworthy for Del Mar because, according to an article in the May 3, 2002 issue of this newspaper (yes, 11 years ago, the last time this topic came before the school board), “not a single kindergarten teacher” favored a later dismissal time for kindergartners “while 78 percent of parents who were surveyed” did.

The district, which previously dismissed kindergarten students at 11:30, tried a pilot program for one year, in 2001-2002, with a 1:30 dismissal time.

The Carmel Valley News story said that the superintendent at the time, Tom Bishop, found it “interesting” that “teachers felt students didn’t perform well in the afternoon while most parents say their kids are thriving with the longer day.”

As a result of undue pressure, a weak Del Mar school board caved and voted to kill the longer kindergarten day after only one year of the pilot program. Ignored was the research and efforts by a district task force that met for almost a year and provided clear evidence that kindergarten students of every socio-economic background are ready for a longer day and, more importantly, can all reap great benefits from extended hours in school.

Del Mar currently has a 12:40 dismissal time, with small-group instruction for students who stay at school one day a week for an extra hour. One has to wonder what the kids do every afternoon whose parents aren’t available to provide them with enriching social, physical and intellectual experiences.

Wishard Guerra contends that a longer kindergarten day provides more opportunities for children to hear complex language, to read and be read to, and to play and pretend with peers which is a language-oriented activity.

“Vocabulary is the number one predictor of later academic and life outcomes,” she said in an email.

Her claims, all backed by cited studies and solid research, suggest that full-day kindergarten, especially for disadvantaged children, can make a world of difference in future academic success.

“Several studies document academic benefits for all children who attend full-day kindergarten over part-day kindergarten, with marked academic gains in English learners, specifically in literacy development,” she wrote in her study.

Provide choice

That said, despite the evidence that full-day kindergarten offers vast benefits, some reasons to retain early dismissal times have merit.

What makes this such a difficult decision is the valid argument that some young children need down-time – to play, relax, refresh and be with other kids socially and enjoy outings with stay-at-home parents. For those who can provide these enriching afternoons, a shorter day is beneficial.

Solana Beach now offers only a full day of kindergarten, while Del Mar only offers a half day. Why not provide parents a choice in both districts?

For Solana Beach’s Global Education kindergarten program, the modified day and full day could both be offered permanently. Let parents choose which is appropriate for their child.

And in Del Mar, the same. Why not create choices for parents and let parents pick whether half-day or full-day is best for their kindergartners? Especially for under-enrolled schools or schools that share common attendance boundaries, this model is ideal.

For example, Del Mar Hills School and Del Mar Heights School, both located west of I-5, share a common attendance area. Hills parents have frequently complained about under-enrollment for incoming kindergarten students.

If the Hills offered full-day kindergarten and the Heights offered only half-day, I’d bet a nickel the Hills would be overrun with demand.

Ashley Falls School is also under-enrolled. How about letting that school provide full-day kindergarten and parents can choose if that’s where they want to send their children?

For schools that share attendance areas, the configuration is perfect for choice.

The ideological question goes further. Why should all schools be exactly alike? Can’t one school offer a distinct program without every school having to offer it also?

Choice allows parents to find the best fit for their kids and provides school districts with valuable information about what works and which programs need adjustments.

Educational and instructional needs change over time – or at least they should. Public education cannot remain stagnant.

We need flexible visionaries as education leaders who believe that even the best of schools can be improved. We need leaders who understand that every student is different and choice offers a way to tailor the needs of each child to best match what each learning environment can offer. We also need leaders who recognize that equity in education can never be compromised.

Schools are not for teachers, and they aren’t for parents. They are for the children. Sometimes that gets forgotten.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at