Kindergarten teacher Bethany Koehler talks with a student during class at Beech Street Elementary in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Seabrook teachers and school officials have been making the case for full-day kindergarten with "The Gift of Time," a PowerPoint pitch that maps out the purported academic and social benefits youngsters reap from participating in full days of school rather than the traditional half-days.
Seabrook is just one of a long list of towns looking at expanding its early childhood education program. Since 2008, when the state required all school districts to offer a half-day kindergarten program, the number of full-day programs has jumped from 43 to 64, while 97 school districts still offer half-day programs.
Proponents of full-day kindergarten say the extra hours can better prepare children academically and socially for first grade, but Seabrook offers another reason to go full day.
According to the Seabrook group's presentation, "The new Common Core State Standards are written for a full-day kindergarten program. This means that our kindergarten students will enter first grade unprepared for the rigors of a first-grade curriculum."
The Common Core State Standards, a math and English language arts/literacy curriculum intended for use across the country, is described as a road map districts can follow to ensure all public school students get the education they need to prosper in life.
School districts are not required to follow the standards. They can choose to adopt Common Core in its entirety, pick just the parts they like, or not use it at all. Districts will decide for themselves how much money they spend on implementing Common Core.
Students nationwide will be required by federal law to take a new assessment test - called Smarter Balanced - that incorporates the Common Core standards. Testing will begin in 2015.
Efforts are being made to inform the public about Common Core, but questions and concerns remain.
In New Hampshire, school administrators and education policymakers have stressed the voluntary aspect of Common Core and that there are no requirements for how much time 5-year-olds should spend in school.
"We have adopted Common Core because we want to have consistently high standards," said Winfried Feneberg, superintendent of the Windham School District, one of the last districts in the country to offer a kindergarten program.
"At this point, I'm not aware of any active movement for a full-day kindergarten," said Feneberg. He said, however, that expanded kindergarten programs give teachers and students an advantage: "It's certainly easier to meet the Common Core standards."
Under Common Core, kindergarten standards in English language arts cover reading, writing, speaking and listening. Goals include the ability to use pictures and words to explain different topics and understand how to participate in shared research projects, such as those involving books by a favorite author.
Kindergarten math skills include the ability to count to 100 by ones and 10s, recognize two- and three-dimensional shapes and understand addition and subtraction.
While doubling the time children spend in classrooms may make it easier for them to meet those and other kindergarten standards, Feneberg said, Windham teachers have invested plenty of time and energy preparing for new goals within the half-day program.
"I'm optimistic that our system can meet the new standards set out for kids," he said. "We will do the best we can with the time we have."
The question of resources
A school district's available resources may factor into any decision on whether to go with a full- or a half-day program. In Windham, there's no available space. In other districts, money might be an issue.
Hooksett School Board member David Pearl said Common Core hasn't triggered a call for full-day kindergarten in his town.
"Even if parents wanted it, we may not be able to accommodate a full-day program," he said.
Nashua offers full-day kindergarten in its five Title 1 elementary schools, which have large populations of children from low-income families. The district's seven other elementary schools offer half-day programs.
Superintendent Mark Conrad said full-day kindergarten has value for all children, but the added hours are not required under Common Core.
Conrad said educators haven't done a good job of explaining the Common Core initiative, fueling apprehension about it.
The Common Core initiative was launched by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to create a clear set of standards for public schools throughout the country. Teachers and education experts from all 50 states are said to have been involved in designing Common Core. The Common Core website and the National Governors Association do not identify any of the actual participants.
English language arts and math standards were released in 2010; any state that adopted them became eligible for a piece of the $4 billion Race to the Top funding pie, which was part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Forty-five states adopted the standards. In New Hampshire, Common Core was adopted by the state Board of Education, a seven-member panel appointed by the governor.
Pearl said the voluntary aspect of Common Core is misleading.
"The Common Core Standards are voluntary, but the Smarter Balance assessment tests are mandatory for all schools, and the tests are based on the standards," said Pearl. "So, how is that voluntary?"
Bedford resident Ann Marie Banfield, an education policy researcher for Cornerstone Family Resources, a conservative think tank committed to traditional values, said there's been a gap between what's technically true about Common Core and the reality of the initiative.
"The commissioner of education recently said New Hampshire did not adopt Common Core," said Banfield. "It's confusing, at the minimum."
One question is whether Common Core will eventually lead to a mandate for full-day kindergarten in all school districts.
"No, no, no, no, no," said Heather Gage, director of instruction for the New Hampshire Department of Education. Gage, like other members of the department, has been visiting cities and towns trying to set the record straight about Common Core.
"The Common Core standards for kindergarten were developed for full-day programs because most states have full-day kindergarten," she said, adding that in New Hampshire, children are not even required to attend kindergarten. Age 6 is the mandatory age for children to be enrolled in school, though roughly 87 percent of the state's 5-year-old children attend public kindergarten.
Gage said there is no plan to push districts toward expanding their kindergarten programs. And the department offers a guide on how to pace Common Core instruction for half-day programs.
"Teachers can choose to use it if they want," said Gage. "They may take bits and pieces, but teachers are what make it happen in the classroom."
Like Seabrook, the Winnisquam Regional School District - which includes the towns of Tilton, Sanbornton and Northfield - appointed a committee to look at expanding kindergarten to full day. There was enough support for the idea to put the question on the school district warrant in 2012, where the proposal was defeated by a 103-91 vote.
Last February, Lakes Region Listens held a community forum on expanding Winnisquam's program. According to a report from that event, there was no consensus among the 42 residents who participated.
Some pointed to a study from Head Start that said most of the gains resulting from early childhood education level out by second or third grade. Others supported a full-day program because the scheduling was better suited to today's economic reality, which in many cases requires two incomes to support a family.
There was, however, a shared sense of confusion about Common Core, what the new standards would mean for kindergartners and whether the new initiative would force a new level of academic rigor for 5-year-olds.
Few of the participants argued against full-day kindergarten because of the cost, which for Winnisquam was estimated at $230,000. Costs could vary widely among school districts, however, depending on number of students and available classroom space. A school might, for example, be able to accommodate two half-day classes with 20 students each, but need to add a teacher and a classroom to avoid having one classroom with 40 kindergartners in it.
Bonnie Jean Kuras, principal of Sanbornton Central School, was on the committee that looked at full-day kindergarten options.
"The school board met and chose not to move forward with the idea because of economic reasons," said Kuras.
Lebanon just started its second year of full-day kindergarten, and Superintendent Gail Paludi said the district received a good amount of support from the community.
"We probably mentioned Common Core when we were talking about expanding kindergarten, but that wasn't the primary motivation," she said.
Still, Paludi said the kindergarten program was designed to align with Common Core, and the first-grade teachers saw the benefits.
"I know there's opposition to the standards, but I haven't seen it here," she added.
Jeff Peavey, chairman of the Lebanon School Board, understands some of that opposition.
"Some districts might not have the space to accommodate a full-day program, and that cost can be difficult, especially for some of the smaller towns," said Peavey.
And Peavey said no one knows for certain how much the total cost of the shift to Common Core would be. The new annual assessment tests are designed to be taken on computers, which might affect a district's budget, and textbook purchases might be proposed to help students do better on those tests.
According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, Hooksett and Windham set aside Everyday Math textbooks to use Math in Focus and enVision Math texts, which are aligned with the Common Core standards.