From the archives: District comes through on full-day kindergartens

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

​The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

From the Fall 1995 print edition, one year into David Hornbeck’s superintendency:

by Paul Socolar

After many dry years of too little kindergarten for too few of our "little sprouts," full-day kindergartens have finally blossomed at elementary schools across Philadelphia this fall.

A year ago, there were only 200 full-day kindergarten classes in the entire School District of Philadelphia. This fall saw that number leap to almost 500, as Superintendent David Hornbeck made good on his commitment to expand full-day kindergartens, one of the key ingredients of his Children Achieving reform plan.

Total enrollment in kindergarten is climbing toward 16,000 students this fall, compared to just over 12,000 enrolled in kindergarten last year.

Moreover, last year most students were in half-day programs that began or ended in the middle of the day. Pointing out that the educational benefits of full-day kindergarten are well documented, Superintendent Hornbeck was able to replace half-day with full-day programs in all but 68 Philadelphia kindergarten classrooms.

District spokespeople report that full-day kindergartens are now in all 130 of the city’s high poverty and "racially isolated" elementary schools. Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith had ordered the District to provide full-day kindergarten at the racially isolated schools, where the judge found that children had been systematically denied educational opportunities.

In addition, 400 additional classroom aides were hired for three hours a day to improve the ratio of adults to students in the full-day programs. Kindergarten classrooms in Philadelphia frequently have as many as 30 children, the maximum set by the District.

Over 1,600 children – one-tenth of the District’s kindergartners – are still in half-day programs at 30 schools.

The District estimates that another 1,600 kindergarten-age children are not enrolled at all, despite an aggressive registration drive this year. Pennsylvania still does not mandate kindergarten by state law.

The School District and advocates for public schools will need to plead the case for more funding to permit a second stage of the kindergarten expansion next fall. The Children Achieving plan calls for full-day kindergartens at all elementary schools next fall, with class size lowered to 20. Accomplishing this goal will be another daunting task, requiring a total expenditure on kindergartens of about $30 million more than this year.

This year’s breakthrough toward universal full-day kindergarten took not only an energetic new Superintendent, but also an order from Commonwealth Court. By focusing the expansion on racially isolated schools, the District has taken a step to directly address one example of disparity in educational opportunity that follows racial lines.

Judge Smith’s ordering of full-day kindergarten was based on her finding last year that fewer of the racially isolated schools had full-day programs, compared to desegregated schools. Judge Smith also noted that two years ago, when some full-day kindergartens were eliminated due to budget cuts, racially isolated schools unfairly bore the brunt of the kindergarten cuts.

This year’s kindergarten expansion was an enormous and expensive campaign – one that involved acquisition and renovation of classroom space, purchase of furniture, a drive to register students, and hiring and training of staff.

Work on classroom space is still going on at several schools. Citywide, over 200 students are still waiting for the completion of classroom renovations before they can take part in the full-day program.

According to Barbara Jackson, coordinator of kindergarten programs for the School District, the summer training program was a high point of the overall effort. The three-day training involved new and experienced kindergarten teachers and their principals.

Feedback from the 350 people in attendance has been "fantastic," Jackson stated.

She added that she will be developing standing committees and study groups among the kindergarten teachers in order to create strong networks across the District.