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Despite benefits of full-day preschool, most state programs are half day

Ms DeLelio is starting her three-hour afternoon class at 11.30am. She teaches El Sereno Elementary's state PreK program to 23 children from 8am-11am and 23 children from 11.30am-2.30pm. Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

It’s the usual school scene: a gaggle of parents waiting outside a locked gate to collect their children at the end of the school day.

But these parents are waiting outside El Sereno Elementary School for preschoolers - and the school day for these kids ended at 11 a.m. For Jacqueline Vargas and many other working parents, getting her kids here and then picking her son up three hours later is a logistical puzzle.

She has switched her hours at her retail job from 12:30 – 9:30 p.m. to accommodate the program – and still she and her mother juggle picking up and dropping off Vargas’s two kids.

"Oh, its hard," Vargas said of her daily schedule.  But she really loves the program at El Sereno Elementary, and has seen the difference in her two children. Her 8 year old daughter did not attend preschool. Her 4 year old has learned many things his sister didn't know at this age in his daily 3-hour preschool classes, she said. 

Of the 135,000 children served by California’s subsidized preschool program for low-income families, 95,000 go to half-day programs. One reason might be because the state pays providers $21.22 per day per child for a half day class and $34.38 per day for a full day.

It makes more financial sense for providers to cycle two classes of kids through half-day programs than offer a full-day program to half as many kids – even though research shows full-day programs are better for student outcomes. 

Two studies out of Rutgers University have proven full-day programs are better.

“Children who had a longer day, learned more, made more progress across the board - literacy and math - compared to children who had half day regular school day program,” said Steve Barnett, who directs the university’s National Institute for Early Education Research and lead a study in 2006 and another last year in Chicago.

The Chicago public school study found kids who attended full day preschool had double the vocabulary of the half-day children - an important marker for literacy.

California education officials are aware of the research, but say they’d rather provide some preschool to twice as many kids than longer days to fewer kids.

 “It’s always a struggle we have between quality and access,” said Deborah MacMannis, director of early education for the California Department of Education.

Blanca Romero, an El Sereno parent, is thrilled at how much her 4-year-old son Jayden is learning in his state PreK class. She can’t afford to put him in all-day preschool, but she can’t help but think how much faster he’d advance if he were in school all day.

“He learns more [at preschool] than obviously being here at home,” she said. “I can’t give him that much of attention because I’m working.”

But El Sereno’s principal, Cheryl Morelan, said the half-day model is working well. Despite all the research, she’s not convinced 4-year-olds can focus for 8 hours.

“I think that kids get tired,” she said. “Being in school all day might be hard for them.”

She said she sees some students who have been in full day care before starting kindergarten that are “less ready” than those who went through El Sereno’s Pre-K program.

“They're less able to sit and listen to a story for an extended period of time,” she said. “They're less able to follow directions when they get to kindergarten.”

Barnett, the Rutgers professor, said daylong Pre-K has to be high quality in order to make a difference.

“You can’t just increase the length of day and automatically you’ll get the results you want,” he said. “Teachers need to be prepared to use the full day.”