Utah's full-day kindergarten shows early return on investment


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LAYTON — Utahns invested $60 million to expand full-day kindergarten this year, and you can already hear the investment paying off, in the voice of a 6-year-old.

"Ted is a cub. Ted ran and ran," the kindergartner read out loud.

More kindergartners are now reading full sentences and books, not sounding out letters. Usually, only a few students get to that point.

This year, half of Lori Smith's class at Crestview Elementary in Layton is reading like this. She said it has never happened before.

"No, it feels amazing," she said.

Full-day kindergarten is also showing up in test scores.

Students in the Davis School District's traditional half-day kindergarten would typically end the year 70% proficient. This year, full-day kindergarten helped the district score 81% proficient.

Smith's class scored a whopping 95% proficient. She tearfully called it life-changing.

"It's everything to them because they have the confidence they can do it," she said.

"It's maybe the most important thing we've done in our state for kids in a long time," added Julie Barlow, humanities director for the Davis School District.

State lawmakers allocated the extra money to provide the option of full-day kindergarten for any parent who wants it.

And parents want it.

"Every parent wants their kids to be successful, and this is a key thing at letting them be successful," Barlow said.

Utah used to have 34% of students attending full-day kindergarten – the lowest in the country. New data from the State Board of Education shows 77% of kindergarten students are now full-day statewide.

At Layton's Crestview Elementary School, 90% are enrolled full-day.

And that is the case for entire school districts like Davis, Logan, Weber, Box Elder, Morgan, Murray and Washington.

Two high-growth districts, Alpine and Nebo, have only 45% of kids in full day because there is no room for more classes in schools. In addition to full-day kindergarten, lawmakers also provided funding for all teachers K-3 to receive intense, two-year literacy training called LETRS.

The training had a noticeable impact on Smith's teaching.

"I saw a big difference once I started implementing the things I learned in LETRS," Smith said.

Christine Elegante, literacy specialist with the Utah State Board of Education, says this combination of full-day kindergarten and teacher training is what finally moved stagnant data.

"I'm not really sure if our legislators realize the impact those two things had," Elegante said.

Students listen in a kindergarten class. Full-day kindergarten is increasing test scores.
Students listen in a kindergarten class. Full-day kindergarten is increasing test scores. (Photo: Deanie Wimmer, KSL-TV)

Schools say the impact will include less time and money spent on remediation after kindergarten.

"We can use that money on other things in our schools," Barlow said.

But the true impact, educators say, is the boost it will give to our youngest learners.

"They say by third grade, if you're still struggling, you'll probably never catch up," Smith said.

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Deanie Wimmer

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