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SANDY — Kindergarten might be the most important year in a child's education. That is why the Canyons School District decided to try expanding the number of hours some of its kindergartners spend in the classroom.
At Altara Elementary, Michelle Veazie's students are working on vocabulary. "Drifting," says Veazie.
"Drifting," repeat the kids.
"Drifting is just floating along," suggests Veazie.
The kids in Veazie's classroom are actually sailing through their learning this year. They are tackling advanced vocabulary, paragraph writing and reading.
"They have a great vocabulary and a great language. And it's been a really awesome year in our class," says Veazie.
Unlike most kindergarten students in Utah, Veazie's kids spend a full day in the classroom.
Rebekah Ames' son, Jonah, is in Veazie's class. "He comes home and he tells me about what he does and he tells me about all the things that he is learning and it's been a great experience for him," she says.
Ames and her husband decided to enroll their son in the Canyons pilot program at Altara Elementary. It offers four supplemental hours of kindergarten instruction each school day for a fee of $2,950 a year. The fee can be paid in monthly installments and scholarships are available for families that qualify.
In fact, Ames says, "As a working mom, I love that those supplemental hours that he (Jonah) would have been in a day care situation while I'm at work, he's now spending that time learning."
Ames did the research and tells KSL the price tag was less than most day care centers and the benefits for academic and social learning outweighed the cost of the program.
Lindsi Smith, whose son Tagg is also in Veazie's class, agrees with Ames.
"In full day, it gives them the opportunity to spend more time on each subject and learn about it in-depth," Smith says.
The deeper dive into critical subjects seems to be paying off for Veazie's students.
"Her (Veazie's) test scores are simply phenomenal," says Nicole Svee Nagann, principal of Altara.
This spring, Benchmark test results show 95 percent of Veazie's students are performing at or above grade level. Svee Nagann is excited by the students' growth. She had a strong feeling the kids would be successful.
"They can handle so much more of a higher expectation and so this allows us to really push them as far as they can go," Svee Nagann says.
Thirteen states were requiring full-day kindergarten as of September 2016. Many others offer it as an option. Utah lawmakers have debated funding full-day kindergarten for years, but the bills have not gone anywhere. So the Canyons District decided to create the supplemental program on its own.
I really believe that when we look at the data, we're going to see sustained growth over time. They will be stronger students for having had this as a basis of their education.
–Nicole Svee Nagann, Altara Elementary School principal
Amber Roderick-Landward is director of the Instructional Supports Department at Canyons. "All the research shows that most students will be successful if we can catch them early before they have a chance to fall behind," she says.
Ames has seen more than academic growth in her son. "I've noticed so much more development in his ability to socialize with other kids."
Roderick-Landward suggests that was another important part of the learning they wanted students to achieve with the extra hours at school. "We're really seeing teachers take advantage of that extra time to teach things like conflict resolution and things like turn-taking."
And now it's time for Veazie's students to take their turn in first grade.
"I think he (Jonah) is way more ready than he would have been if he'd been in a half-day program," Ames says.
Smith believes Tagg is too. "He's ready to start first grade and hit the ground running and just keep going at the pace he's been going at."
The Canyons District is expanding the supplemental kindergarten program from four to 15 schools this fall. At Altara, educators believe it is an option that should be available to all parents in Utah.
"I think it would be beneficial for all kids," Veazie says.
"I really believe that when we look at the data, we're going to see sustained growth over time. They will be stronger students for having had this as a basis of their education," Svee Nagann says.
There are still spaces available in some of the supplemental kindergarten programs. You can check the Canyon District's website for a list of schools offering the program.