May 20, 2005
The Mesa kindergarten teacher held up a blue storybook. "Read the first line to yourself in your head," Roberta Witkin told her class. "Raise your hand if you can tell me what it says."
Osvaldo Meraz’s hand shot up as he answered in an excited voice: "His boat can not go!"
As they read on, the thrilled children learned the story was about a dog who forgot to fill his big boat with gas, and asked friendly animals to give him a little tug.
To adults watching as the Lowell Elementary School children read, the real story has been their progress in the school’s state-funded full-day kindergarten.
"There’s no way we could’ve done that last year," said Renee Parker, the school’s reading specialist, of the kindergartners’ reading. "Basically this is what our first-graders do in October."
Lowell principal Sandra Kuhn has used test scores to compare how prepared her full-day students are for first grade.
Though only about 10 Lowell kindergartners spoke English when school began in August, now 94 percent are at grade level and ready to enter school — already reading books and writing short stories. This time last year, 61 percent of kindergartners were at grade level, meaning 39 percent were behind — including 24 percent who were extremely far behind.
Four East Valley schools are completing the first year of state-funded full-day kindergarten, which Witkin says has given teachers time to finally teach all the required state standards and allow the neediest kids to catch up. Last year, the state agreed to fund a full day for schools where at least 90 percent of students are enrolled in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
A state budget passed last week by the Arizona Legislature, and awaiting signature by Gov. Janet Napolitano, would increase that funding to include all schools with at least 80 percent on the lunch program.
That could increase statefunded full-day programs from three in Mesa and one in Tempe to at least nine in Mesa, at least one in Chandler, and at least two in Tempe. Several other schools are waiting to find out if they’ve made the list as well.
The Arizona Department of Education is tallying an estimate of how many schools would qualify, but may not have final figures until early June.
Chandler’s Galveston Elementary School, where Lourdes Nieto teaches kindergarten, is likely to receive state funding next year. Nieto said her school has used federal dollars to provide full-day kindergarten for two years, but the state funding would free that money for other education programs.
This year, her full-day students — 75 percent of whom came in speaking only Spanish — are also excelling compared to her former half-day classes. On similar tests, she said 19 of 26 students can read and are at grade level on math. Eleven of those students tested fully at grade level, with eight almost at grade level.
"I think we’ll have fewer kids falling through the cracks since we’re starting so early with them," she said.
Witkin, meanwhile, is thrilled to see her students prepared for first grade in reading, writing, math — with soaring levels of confidence that "I can do it," she said.
She watched as her kindergartners read "A Bug Can Tug" to each other. Six-yearold Brian Gomez was the first to finish — causing his teacher to smile as she mused: "He’s going to be president someday."
East Valley elementary schools that now have state-funded full-day kindergarten:
• Thomas J. Pappas, Tempe
• Guerrero, Mesa
• Longfellow, Mesa
• Lowell, Mesa
Schools anticipated to qualify
• Galveston, Chandler
• Adams, Mesa
• Eisenhower, Mesa
• Holmes, Mesa
• Lincoln, Mesa
• Webster, Mesa
• Whitman, Mesa
• Frank, Guadalupe
• Holdeman, Tempe
• Laird, Tempe
• Nevitt, Phoenix
• Thew, Tempe
• Scales, Tempe