PINE RIVER -- When Pine River Elementary School kindergarten teacher Sue Spier tells her students to write their "first-grade name," that means the 5- and 6-year-olds need to capitalize the first letter of their names.
But during the next few years within the Pine River-Backus School District, it may become increasingly difficult to distinguish a first-grade name from a kindergarten name.
Starting this school year, all kindergartners now attend all-day, every-day kindergarten. The results of the extended kindergarten program have impressed teachers, administration and many parents.
Pine River-Backus kindergartners tested in December had acquired the skills most would have at the end of their kindergarten year if they had been attending school all day, every other day, as they would have with the former kindergarten program.
Almost all kindergartners in Gloria Felthous' classroom at Pine River Elementary School can now read, and many were able to read months ago.
"I love it," said Spier, who has taught kindergarten at Pine River Elementary School for 30 years. "I've never had all-day, every-day kindergarten. Not only are they further ahead, but they seem very secure with it. It's just a confidence they seem to have. They believe in themselves. The kids are doing a wonderful job and it's just exciting."
Shane Sepin (left) and Whitney Nelson, kindergartners at Backus Elementary School, quietly read to themselves in the corner of their classroom.
For three years the school district implemented an all-day, every-day curriculum for about 25 percent of kindergarten students whom teachers felt needed extra help. The extra classtime proved to be so successful that the district this year included all 60 kindergarten students.
"The research showed it really strengthened the skill levels of these students and filled in those learning gaps," said Pine River-Backus Elementary Principal Vic Rinke. "Some kids who enter kindergarten are 1 1/2 years behind, skill-wise, and it helped close those gaps."
The district also increased the number of days offered for Learning Readiness, a preschool education program.
The all-day, every-day kindergarten program cost the school district an additional $100,000 in instructional costs and materials this year, costs absorbed into the budget, said Rinke.
The Pine River-Backus School District didn't qualify for additional state funding of the kindergarten program, as some school districts in the state with higher rates of poverty among students have for similar all-day programs.
A meeting was held last April for parents of this year's kindergarten class to discuss the program. Some parents worried their children weren't ready to spend five days a week in the classroom. A few parents felt their children needed to spend more time at home, rather than at school.
The district gave one parent the option of picking up her child after lunch if she felt her child wasn't capable of spending the entire day at school. By the end of the first week, the student was in school all day, every day, said Spier. Kindergartners do have "quiet time" after lunch. A few students continue to sleep during this time, but most make it through the school day without a nap.
Sarah Rudlang, 6, a kindergartner at Pine River Elementary School, practiced writing the word "not" on the chalkboard.
"I am absolutely thrilled that Pine River-Backus is offering all-day, every-day kindergarten to its students again next year," said Felthous. "As a former first-grade teacher, I am very excited that our kindergartners will enter first grade next year with very strong academic and social skills -- much stronger than before because of our all-day program. I hope other districts in this area that aren't offering this type of program will start thinking about extending their kindergarten programs, too."
Surveys recently filled out by kindergarten parents seem to support the program. While a few parents still questioned why the district was requiring all-day attendance for such young students, the majority of parents favored the program.
"I like kindergarten because it's fun," said 5-year-old Dani Jo Molash, a kindergartner at Pine River Elementary School, as she finished coloring a math worksheet in Spier's classroom. "If our part of the class closed down, I would burst out in tears."
"I like kindergarten because you can see all your friends," said Shane Sepin, 6, a kindergartner at Backus Elementary School.
Kindergarten teachers for the past two years have used an all-day, every-day reading program for students. This year they not only will be able to get through the entire curriculum, but they have more time to offer computer classes, art, music and other projects during the school week.
"I'm a strong supporter," said Backus kindergarten teacher Deb Winn. "I see my kids doing things that surprise me. The big factor here is time. They have more time to grow, to become more independent."
Kindergarten round-up for next year's kindergarten class is scheduled for 9:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at both elementary schools.
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