West York Superintendent Emilie Lonardi talks with kindergartners Emma Lindstrom, left, and Isaac Clark during a visit last week to a half-day kindergarten
West York Superintendent Emilie Lonardi talks with kindergartners Emma Lindstrom, left, and Isaac Clark during a visit last week to a half-day kindergarten class at Wallace Elementary. As a child, Lonardi attended full-day kindergarten, a format that is growing more poplar in York County school districts. (Bill Kalina Photo)
Editor's note: This is a three-part series examining the growth of full-day kindergarten. Thursday is an in-depth look at Dallastown's full-day kindergarten proposal.

Full-day kindergarten has become the trend du jour in elementary schools -- one many York County educators think eventually will lead to improved performance in upper grades.

Dallastown Area School District officials are considering switching all half-day classes to full-day, with a decision expected in February. South Eastern, Central, York Suburban and West York are among other districts discussing or planning to add more full-day classes.

Others -- including Dover, Eastern, Northeastern and York City -- already offer full-day to all or nearly all of their students.

At this point, every York County school district offers at least some full-day classes, something few could have claimed a decade ago.

In those days, full-day kindergarten was more likely thought of as a way to get parents off the hook for day care.

Now it is much more common for a child to enter kindergarten having already gone to full-day preschool, county school officials say.

Couple that with increasing academic standards for upper grades, and full-day kindergarten is being viewed more as a necessary academic offering.

"I don't think there are educators not embracing the idea. ... I think we're done selling it," said Kathy Gellar Myers of PA Partnerships for Children.

The research: The child advocacy group cites numerous studies proving the benefits of full-day kindergarten, including improved test scores in third grade, the first year the state tests students for No Child Left Behind.

"Research shows it pays to invest in early education," Myers said.

Critics, however, point to studies such as a 2008 report by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Loyola University that show the benefits of full-day kindergarten fade by third grade.

Those studies conclude full-day benefits at-risk students only over the short term, and it doesn't have a great long-term benefit for regular education students.

Dallastown did its own analysis of 12 students who were in full-day kindergarten in 2004-05 as they took state tests in third and fourth grades in recent years. Those students fared well in state tests in both grades, suggesting sustainability over the years in math and reading achievement.

Full-day revival: West York Superintendent Emilie Lonardi, herself a product of full-day kindergarten, said full-day fell out of favor over the years until its recent revival.

Why the change? In recent years, the state has offered accountability block grants to help defray costs. Increased state standards for students also helped get it back in favor, with more expected of kindergartners.

"Kindergarten is more rigorous than it ever has been in the history of kindergarten," Lonardi said.

Some districts have been trend setters instead of trend followers.

Eastern York began its full-day program about seven years ago.

"We looked at early literacy. We wanted to give our children as much of a head start as possible," said Paula Westerman, director of curriculum and instruction.

The district has offered half-day to parents who want it, but only a handful of parents do, Westerman said. Those parents like to offer their own instruction at home or don't think their child is ready for a full day of school. The district maintains only one half-day class for those students, as several families who were initially concerned with full-day decided they liked it.

"We found, within the first week of school, a good majority of children who are half-day go home and say, 'I want to be a full-day'" student, Westerman said.

Her experience: Westerman saw the full-day experiment first-hand as the principal of Kreutz Creek Elementary at the time of implementation, around 2001.

"I had my kindergarten teacher see in November (results) they usually see in January," Westerman said. "Our teachers are seeing a difference in how they perform."

The results might be showing up in state test scores for Eastern, as well; Eastern was recently honored by the state for having some of the most dramatic gains in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.

"I do think full-day K is part of the reason. I don't think you can pinpoint that's the sole reason, but you do see within the full-day ... there is improvement," Westerman said. "I don't have scientific research to show what we did here. But it's consistent that students are performing several months ahead of time."

Implementation: As the full-day trend has spread, York County districts have differed on whether to offer it for just the neediest students or for all students.

Northern York School District has one of the smallest full-day programs in the county, with just two classes for at-risk students, usually those in special education or from poor or non-English-speaking families.

Its program is set up so those students get literacy and math work in the morning, and then join a half-day class in the afternoon that is going over the same material. The program, now in its second year, has had good initial results, said Superintendent Linda Lemmon.

Expanding the program isn't practical right now, she said. There's no room.

And unlike many of its district peers, Northern might not fully jump on the full-day wagon even if there were classroom space.

"If you offer full-day to everybody, then you really aren't catching up those at-risk kids," Lemmon said.

Limiting opportunities: Dallastown's in-house data show how much full-day students had caught up to their half-day peers. The achievement gap was greatly reduced in a variety of areas by the end of the school year.

Assistant Superintendent Ron Dyer acknowledged that by offering full-day to all students, "there could be some gaps" created by giving those students not considered at-risk the same extra classroom time.

But that's not a reason to limit their educational opportunities.

"We're not going to hold them back," Dyer said.

As an example, he said a district wouldn't stop offering advanced placement classes at the high school to curb the growth of its top students.

All students should have the advantage of extra classroom time, said South Eastern School District Superintendent Tracy Shank. It puts every student in a better position for long-term success.

"It gives them an opportunity to enrich, to continue to promote their learning at a greater level," Shank said.

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at 505-5431, ashaw@yorkdispatch.com or twitter.com/ydblogwork.

For more information about PA Partnerships for Children's various reports and studies on full-day kindergarten, visit www.papartnerships.org/resources.asp. For an in-depth look at Dallastown Area School District's analysis of its full-day kindergarten achievement results, visit this link.