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Illinois Gov. Approves Full-Day Public Kindergarten

J.B. Pritzker signed a bill this week requiring public school districts to establish full-day kindergarten by the 2027-28 school year. The bill also requires a half-day program.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill Wednesday requiring public school districts in Illinois to establish full-day kindergarten by the 2027-28 school year, the first of many education bills expected to be greenlighted in the coming weeks.

Under the bill, every district must also establish a half-day program that is developmentally appropriate and provides opportunities for play-based learning.

“Full-day kindergarten is an essential step towards getting young Illinoisans off to the best possible start in their education, which has long-lasting positive effects on reading, math and social skills,” Pritzker said in a statement. “From Smart Start to school funding to early childhood, we’re investing heavily in our state’s youngest residents because we know that every investment we make now is paid back multiple times over by engaged and educated citizens.”

Democratic state Rep. Mary Beth Canty of Arlington Heights, who introduced the bill in the House, said that besides it being beneficial for parents and students, a full-day system offers more flexibility for teachers.

“Full day doesn’t mean you’re adding to the curriculum,” Canty said Wednesday. “It just means you’re getting more opportunities for the teachers to go through the material in a way that is helpful for themselves and their students. In a 2½-hour, half-day school day, there’s just not enough time to truly get through the curriculum with everything else that we’re asking teachers to do — making time for art and recess and gym.”

Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford agreed. “Full-day kindergarten provides families with comprehensive, stable learning environments so children can be prepared for the demands of early elementary school,” she said in a statement.

Canty said parents who live in districts without the option of full-day kindergarten often face both social and economic barriers, particularly if all adult family members work outside the home.

“The cost of child care is really prohibitive when you only have a half-day program and the hours can be really wonky for working families,” she said, adding that her kids, now in sixth and third grades, would hop on a bus after half-day kindergarten in Arlington Heights District 25 and go to the elementary school for an after-school program to be picked up later because midday transportation was an issue.

Districts that don’t already have a full-day program and need to create one can apply for a waiver to extend the implementation date up to two years past the 2027-28 school year, depending on funding criteria laid out in the bill.

Canty said a crucial component of the bill is that it establishes the Full Day Kindergarten Task Force, which will conduct a statewide audit to inform the planning and execution of programs across each school district, including capital costs.

Members for the task force will be appointed by Oct. 1, and will need to issue an interim report on Nov. 15, 2024, and a final report no later than Jan. 31, 2025.

Canty explained that the task force would first study the current state of full-day kindergarten in Illinois, including the capacity of each school district to provide full-day schooling.

It’s important to note that full-day kindergarten may not look the same in every district, Canty said, and some districts might pair the program with an early childhood center while others will carve out classrooms in their elementary spaces.

“What may be right for some districts may not be right for others,” Canty said. “So that’s why in the bill, we don’t dictate how you accomplish full-day kindergarten. It’s just that you do have to provide it.”

The task force will work with the Illinois State Board of Education to identify the handful of districts that don’t offer full-day kindergarten, though Canty said it’s still unclear how many offer half-day or full-day options.

Because children in Illinois are not required to attend school until age 6, parents can opt out of kindergarten altogether. But there is an overwhelming demand for full-day kindergarten in the districts that do offer it, Canty said.

State Superintendent Tony Sanders is a big proponent of play-based learning, in which children can learn through exploring and hands-on activities as opposed to simply sitting at a desk. Sanders said developmentally appropriate kindergarten programs that help a child develop social-emotional skills also allow kids to grow academically.

When Sanders was superintendent of Elgin-based U-46, he oversaw the addition of full-day kindergarten, an initiative in which the district shifted middle schools to a sixth, seventh and eighth grade model beginning in 2025, which would then open up space in elementary buildings to begin expanding early childhood opportunities.

“Universal access to full-day kindergarten brings us closer to ensuring all Illinois students receive the early learning opportunities they need to thrive,” Sanders said in an email. “Today we are taking another critical step toward making Illinois the best place in the nation to raise a family.”

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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