SALT LAKE CITY — When Jennifer Koerte tells people she’s a kindergarten teacher, they invariably say something like “Oh that’s cute. Like, you have naps and snacks.”
“And I say, ‘No, we’re writing sentences and adding and subtracting,’” she said.
Walk into Koerte’s classroom at Salt Lake City School District’s North Star Elementary and you’ll see children playing a dice game to learn a math concept, listening to a story about holiday observances in Mexico and sounding out new words.
At North Star, kindergartners attend a full-day of school. Koerte keeps the mood light and the classroom busy with activities that teach them the fundamentals of language arts and math, but in a way that is so engaging that most students think they’re just playing games.
Although it was chilly Wednesday morning, every child got a warm greeting from Koerte to get the school day started on a positive note.
“Have a wonderful day, kinder-friend,” Koerte said upon meeting a student at the door. “We’re going to have such a great day.”
While most Utah students attend a half-day of kindergarten, North Star students attend school most days from shortly before 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the same schedule as older peers at the school.
While some may argue a full school day is too long for 5 and 6 year olds, Koerte said most students handle it well, although it takes them a few weeks to build up their stamina and get accustomed to a school routine.
For those who argue against the full-day or extended-day experience, Koerte says, “What’s a couple more hours a day?”
While some parents make frequent visits to libraries and cultural events and their kids are well prepared for first grade after attending a half-day of kindergarten, those niceties are out of reach for many parents who are working, or who lack transportation or money.
“I have eight language learners whose parents don’t even speak English so it’s hard for them to help them at home with learning reading and writing. They need to be here for longer days because they need instruction from teachers, but also the interaction from other students is teaching them so much, too. It’s really important,” she said.
Koerte said her students move through many lessons during the day, while she sometimes struggles to pack everything in to each school day. Unlike their peers who attend half-day kindergarten, students on a full-day track have important enrichment opportunities such as art and physical education.
Kindergartners at North Star also receive instruction in social studies and science, with teachers conducting one science experiment weekly.
“It’s really a full day of academic rigor,” said Koerte, who decided to return to school to become an elementary school teacher after years of volunteering in her children’s schools. This is her sixth year of teaching.
Koerte’s classroom of 20 students includes learners who are early readers and can write sentences with punctuation. Others started kindergarten not knowing how to hold a pencil, let alone write their names.
For students with disabilities, those who are English language learners or are economically disadvantaged, full-day kindergarten or extended-day programs result in increased performance in literacy and numeracy, according to state kindergarten assessments.
Nationally, 80% of students attend full-day kindergarten. In Utah, 24% attend optional enhanced kindergarten programs. The programs provide opportunities for students demonstrating academic risk upon kindergarten entry to participate in extended learning experiences.
Utah education officials say there is a need for expanding these programs.
According to state Kindergarten Entry and Exit Profile — or KEEP — data, about 40% of students start school unprepared for kindergarten. To provide early intervention to those 40%, the Utah State Board of Education is seeking from the Utah Legislature an $18.6 million increase in new funding on top of the current $7.5 million.
The board is expected to review the business case it prepared for state lawmakers accompanying the request during its monthly meeting on Thursday.
Another complication is that Utah has relied on $2.88 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding to help support full-day and extended-day kindergarten programs. The funds were in reserve but have been spent down and will expire at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
According to the State School Board’s business case, the loss of those federal funds would result in “dismantling programs in 46 schools across 17 local education agencies. Also, the state will not be able to serve the number of students who are scoring below grade level in literacy and numeracy, according to KEEP data, and need this intervention.”
North Star Elementary’s full-day kindergarten program strives to build foundational skills that students will need throughout their public school experience, Koerte said.
The assessment kindergarteners take at the end of school year expects that students can count to 100, write their numbers up to 20, add and subtract with numbers 1-10, and they should be fluent in addition facts up to five, among other content.
In language arts, students are expected to be able to read short vowel words, sight read 40 words and, after hearing a story, write sentences with three pertinent details.
“It’s pretty rigorous, I feel, but that’s what success looks like. Ultimately, not everyone is going to get there,” she said. Teachers meet their students where they are and strive to help them grow, building their skills and self-confidence, she said.
Koerte acknowledges small victories and encourages her students to reach higher. There are posters in her classroom that remind students “You can do hard things.”
Her planned classroom activities came to a halt Wednesday for a required language arts test that students undergo four times during the school year.
At first his glimpse of the test, one boy balked and said, “This is hard.”
“This isn’t hard. You’re going to do great,” Koerte replied.
With her words of encouragement, he buckled down and concentrated on the test.