Guest opinion: Full-day kindergarten is great for kids and families need the option
In February 2019, my family moved to Mapleton in the Nebo School District after living in Germany for 10 years. My youngest child was almost 5 and very eager to start school with her older siblings, but we only had the option to enroll her in half-day kindergarten. It was a rude awakening and costly to my family. Why didn’t we have a choice to send our child to full-day kindergarten?
My family is not alone. Over two-thirds of Utah families do not have access to choose full-day kindergarten. Nebo School District is only able to offer optional full-day kindergarten to 8% of its students compared to 34% of students statewide and 82% of students nationally. Nebo, like many other districts, only has enough funding to offer full-day kindergarten to the most academically at-risk students with no consideration of family preferences or needs. This system does not meet the needs of many families.
The primary reason my family needed full-day kindergarten access was due to the high cost of living here that necessitated I return to work at least part-time. Since 2000, the cost for housing in Utah has increased 200%, driving more caregivers like me back into the workforce.
Current limited access to full-day kindergarten based on academic need fosters stigma among those whose children could benefit the most. My neighbor who teaches kindergarten said some families who are offered access based on their child’s academic needs sometimes don’t take advantage of it because they don’t want their kids labeled or seen as in need.
I enjoyed and am grateful for the opportunity I had to be a full-time caregiver to my children. However, that is not an option for many families today — particularly those who have experienced divorce, death of a spouse, extended illness or work disruptions. Access to choose full-day kindergarten would help families like mine navigate the high costs of living and their unique circumstances.
My part-time work with after-school programming through Boys & Girls Clubs of Utah County has provided me a window into the difficult challenges facing some of our youth and families, namely housing and food insecurity, addiction, relational abuse, neglect, parental separation, English language learning and so forth. One local friend fled an abusive marriage and really needed full-day kindergarten for her youngest child as she tried to reenter the workforce to support her family and go to school for better employment. When my family lived in Germany, my older four children and many immigrants and asylum seekers benefited greatly from opting into full-day language immersion school and programming rather than half-day school.
In a recent Utah Afterschool Network meeting with state Sen. Luz Escamilla, she noted that there has been a rise in middle and high school students dropping out of school in order to care for younger siblings. She referenced the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous quote, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.” Here in Utah, we know why people are falling in and we have a variety of solutions that work to pull youth and families out of the river. Increasing access to full-day kindergarten supports our most vulnerable Utahns.
Full-day kindergarten is a time-tested, evidence-based early learning investment that saves time and money down the road. Kindergarten students in full-day programs make between two and four times the academic gains of their half-day peers. Full-day kindergarten is not babysitting, it’s nourishing our future citizens and leaders and supporting families. Our Utah State Board of Education supports extending access to more families.
Not everyone wants or needs full-day kindergarten for their children, but families who do should have access to choose it. When given the chance, between 85% and 95% of Utah families typically opt in to a full-day kindergarten program.
Despite the positive outcomes shown by optional full-day programs, administrators in our rapidly growing Nebo School District are unable to offer more families the chance to attend. Only reliable and accessible state funding will allow administrators to begin planning how to offer optional full-day kindergarten to more families.
Please help our local school districts plan for growth and the needs of families here. Let your legislators know you want them to fund more access to optional full-day kindergarten as they consider kindergarten legislation again this January. Most administrators and teachers know it will help our children. Most families want the opportunity to choose.
Utah is known as being family-friendly. Let’s show it by giving more families the option to participate in full-day kindergarten!
Tracie Carter is the mother of five children who attend Nebo School District schools. She lives with her family in Mapleton.