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From Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Katie Richter has been teaching first grade for six years. Three years ago, she started seeing a difference in her students.

"They're much more prepared for school," she said. "I remember kids used to fall asleep in class because they were used to taking a nap in the middle of the day. That doesn't happen anymore."

Richter, who teaches at McAnnulty Elementary School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, attributes the change to full-day kindergarten, which the district adopted four years ago with the help of the state's Accountability Block Grant program.

"It just makes sense -- the more time you spend in school, the better you're going to be," Richter said.

Full-day kindergarten programs like the one at McAnnulty are facing elimination next year as school districts struggle to close vast budget gaps, but a new study by a Harrisburg advocacy group, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, suggests that the all-day classes may be making a difference.

Looking at third-graders' Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores, the group found that districts with full-day kindergarten have made greater gains, especially in reading. Since the first cohort of full-day kindergarteners reached third grade, these districts have seen students reach grade level at higher rates.

Between 2006 and 2010, districts with full-day kindergarten brought 7.9 percent more children to grade level in reading, while those with half-day programs raised the number at grade level by 4.4 percent. In math, full-day districts brought 3.2 percent more children to grade level, while others brought 0.6 percent up.

The results of this analysis were consistent with numerous other studies of full-day kindergarten, although a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Loyola University Chicago found that the gains diminished over time. The researchers attributed that to differences in socioeconomic status -- poor students were more likely to be in full-day programs.

According to state Department of Education enrollment statistics, about 85,000 of Pennsylvania's 125,000 kindergarteners were in full-day classes last year. More than three-quarters of them were in programs funded by Accountability Block Grants.

But Gov. Tom Corbett, citing the state's $4 billion budget deficit, has called for the elimination of the program, which costs Pennsylvania $260 million a year.

Facing vast budget deficits of their own, school districts across the state are preparing to cut their full-day programs -- or scrambling to find the money elsewhere.

"I'm going to keep it, but we may have less teachers and larger classes," said Cynthia Chelen, superintendent of Monessen City schools, which received a grant of $188,000 this year. The benefits, she explained, were too valuable to give up.

"They're reading!" Chelen said. "They used to not be reading until first grade."

Christine Oldham, superintendent of Ligonier Valley schools, said she was not surprised by the findings of the Pennsylvania Partnerships study.

"If we do away with full-day kindergarten, we're just postponing kindergarten to age 6, because first grade becomes kindergarten," she said.

Oldham said that Ligonier was working to keep its full-day program, which began in 2005.

"The board and the administration are committed to full-day kindergarten," she said. "However, nothing is a sure thing."

Other districts are considering laying off kindergarten teachers and cutting full-day programs. East Allegheny school directors voted last month to return to half-day kindergarten.

Though school districts must consider the governor's budget as they assemble their own spending plans for the 2011-12 school year, the cuts still must be approved by the General Assembly.

Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships, said that lawmakers from both parties had expressed concerns about the cuts, while others were worried that public school spending was too high.

"I think it's highly likely that a discussion about full-day kindergarten will be part of the budget process," she said.

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