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Little trailblazers: Paxson's first class of all-day kindergartners proudly graduates
Kindergartners stop at their lockers before returning to their classroom for “rest time” Wednesday afternoon at Paxson Elementary School. During the first year of all-day kindergarten, teachers found the pupils respond well to the quiet break in the seven-hour day.
Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

It's tough to be a teacher when you're only 5.

But Missoula's preschoolers stepped up to the task this year, educating the adults in the brand-new world of all-day kindergarten.

"We had to tell Mrs. Line what books we had already read and when we had to go to the bathroom," explained Bugsy Kendall, who is now an official all-day kindergarten graduate from Paxson Elementary School. He and 59 other "kindys" made sure that teachers Julie Line, Claudia LaRance and Salla Britt - and the rest of Paxson - knew they're here to stay.

"During the first four weeks, all the days seemed about two hours too long," said LaRance, who's taught kindergarten in Missoula for 30 years. "But after that, when they got the routine down, they handled it pretty darn well."

The teachers added a rest time to the day, and noticed immediate results. The children all kept blankets and pillows in their lockers, and brought them out in one long quilted trail every afternoon.

Word came back from PE and music teachers about how much better the kids responded when they'd had a rest, Line said, and how their batteries appeared low when they missed one.

The teachers also tweaked their personal styles. In half-day kindergarten, there's a break between the morning and afternoon sessions when teachers can get their bookwork and preparation done. And first-graders are mature enough to work on their own for a while so the teacher can manage his or her own desk.

But the kindys are all-attention, all-day. There's no "silent reading" or "work at your desks" when everybody's still hammering on the basics of word sounds and letter shapes.

"Five- and 6-year-olds have a lot of energy," said Line, who's worked with the littlest students for 17 years. "You've got to have lots of transitions, lots of centers, and just keep moving back and forth."

Timing is also important. Half-day kindys typically ran full-speed from the start of class to the end. Full-day kindys tend to slow down after lunch. The teachers adapted by using the afternoons for art and music experience, or reinforcing the lessons they'd started in the morning. Bringing up new stuff after lunch was a low-return effort.

A special session of the 2007 Legislature appropriated $36 million to kick-start all-day kindergarten statewide. The money went to any district that asked, and paid for extra teachers, classroom remodeling, materials and related costs. By last fall, almost 90 percent of Montana's 5-year-olds were in all-day programs.

MCPS got about $2.2 million for its kindergarten upgrade. Much of that money went to remodeling at Lewis and Clark, Franklin and Russell elementary schools. The last bit should go into construction at Hawthorne Elementary School this summer.

About 540 children enrolled, and close to the same number appear ready to start kindergarten this coming fall. MCPS had just one class of half-day kindergarten - at Chief Charlo Elementary - last year.

Adding all-day kindergarten meant bumping many family resource center offices. Those should be re-established this fall, now that the new kindergarten classrooms have opened. Some other side benefits include moving Hawthorne's hallway computer lab into its own room and finding a place for Franklin music students to practice other than a bathroom.

The change affected more than just the 5-year-olds.

"I've really enjoyed having the kindergartners all day," said Paxson Principal Roberta Stengel. "With the half-day schedule, they really didn't get to be a part of the school."

Kindergartners are now full-fledged members of Paxson, Stengel said. They're attending all-school assemblies and talent shows and fire drills. In half-day classes, students never quite reached that in-the-mix comfort zone.

One big concern last fall was that kindergarten would become the new first grade, with all lessons creeping down a notch. But kindergartners remain very different from first-graders, and the teachers pounced on those differences. They're not expected to read by the end of kindergarten (although many of them can). But they are expected to know word sounds and rhyming and all the other building blocks that will make reading come faster the next year.

And their education wanders far from worksheets and textbooks. It will show up in kids who already know how to use the library and how to behave in the lunch room. They've adapted to the seven-hour day and know where all the bathrooms are.

Line's kindergartners are already looking forward to next year.

"You need to read when you become a first-grader," said David Thomas.

"Right," said Bugsy Kendall. "On the fifth day of first grade, they teach you how to read."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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