MORTON — Jodi Hoelscher is in the trenches every day, teaching half-day kindergarten at Lincoln Elementary School.
"Our half-day is only 2 1/2 hours. That forces us to teach at an extremely fast pace to meet the required Illinois Learning Standards and doesn't give us time to develop our students' social and emotional skills," she said.
There also isn't time for music instruction or physical education.
Those days are about to end. The Morton School Board on Tuesday agreed with the district administration's recommendation and voted unanimously to add a full-day kindergarten option for students at Grundy, Lettie Brown and Lincoln elementary schools beginning with the 2018-2019 school year.
Jefferson, the district's other elementary school, has had only full-day kindergarten since 2014. Kindergarten classes there include students from other district elementary schools who have been identified as needing additional academic instruction.
The board's unanimous vote was greeted with loud applause and cheers from the approximately 150 Morton teachers and parents who filled a downstairs meeting room at the district offices.
Fourteen audience members addressed board members before the vote. All but one speaker praised the full-day kindergarten option. The comments followed a flood of emails sent to board members the previous few days from full-day kindergarten supporters.
Morton teachers and parents have been campaigning for a district-wide full-day kindergarten option for years, only to be told the district didn't have the space or finances to support the expansion.
Hoelscher, who is in her ninth year teaching kindergarten at Lincoln, said she's elated about the board's vote.
"This is an amazing step forward for Morton," she said.
"Instruction in a full-day kindergarten class is at a much more age-appropriate pace than half-day with daily reading, writing and math, and there's time for P.E. and music. Full-day kindergarten also provides opportunities for social interactions that foster problem solving, character building and positive peer relationships."
Ashley Valerio's daughter Charlotte, 4, will be in kindergarten next school year at Lincoln. Charlotte's brother Grayson, 3, will follow his sister into kindergarten in a couple of years.
Valerio said she's happy about the board's vote not only as a parent, but as a former elementary school teacher.
"Had Charlotte gone to half-day kindergarten at Lincoln, she would have had almost 10 minutes less time in school each day than she has now in her half-day pre-school," Valerio said. "And she'd be in a class with 24 students instead of 10, like she is now. Full-day kindergarten gives teachers much more time for practical applications of what the students are learning."
Morton Superintendent Jeff Hill said it will cost the district an estimated $138,000 annually to hire the anticipated addition of 3.5 teachers to expand full-day kindergarten.
That includes savings from lower transportation costs from fewer mid-day runs for half-day kindergarten students. Half-day kindergarten goes from 8:20 to 10:55 a.m. and 12:05 to 2:40 p.m. in the district. Full-day kindergarten is from 8:20 a.m. to 2:40 p.m., on the first- through sixth-grade schedule.
Space for full-day kindergarten is available at Grundy, Lettie Brown and Lincoln thanks to a $12 million renovation project that included passage of a $10.5 million building bonds referendum in 2016.
Assistant Superintendent Craig Smock said Grundy, Lettie Brown and Lincoln could have all full-day kindergarten classes, or a half-day class could be offered for families who choose that option. Also, state law allows parents to take their children out of a full-day kindergarten class after a half day.
A big question is how many kindergartners will be in Morton schools next year.
There are 204 students this school year in seven half-day and three full-day sections taught by 6.5 teachers.
Screenings for next year's kindergarten students were held last week. As of Tuesday, 180 children were signed up for the screenings.
Smock said the district normally sees a 10 percent increase in students from kindergarten to first grade, mostly students who were in full-day kindergarten classes in private schools.
"It's possible we'll be getting some of those students in our full-day kindergarten classes," Smock said.
The latest discussion about a district-wide full-day kindergarten option was launched several months ago by the administration's new Morton Moving Forward academic initiative.
One goal of the initiative is to improve reading skills for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
"Full-day kindergarten is a piece of a broader reading improvement strategy," Hill said.
While the board vote on full-day kindergarten was unanimous, at least three members struggled with making their decision.
"I deal with data in my job and data shows that students in a half-day kindergarten class catch up academically with students in full-day kindergarten by third grade," said board member Kevin Austin. "But this decision is about more than data. You have to look at it from a teacher's perspective."
"This is not a black and white decision," said board Vice President Shad Beaty.
"Are we pushing too much on our children at that age?" questioned board President Tom Neeley. "We need to be sensitive to our parents who want half-day kindergarten for their child. We need to treat them with a kind heart."
Board member Michelle Bernier said she's talked to many Morton parents who were "shocked" when they learned the district didn't have a full-day kindergarten option at three elementary schools.
"I give our administration a lot of credit for pushing through with their suggestion for full-day kindergarten in the face of resistance from some board members," Bernier said. "This is a great decision for the children in our community."
Board member Jeff Schmidgall did not attend Tuesday's meeting because he was out of town. Neeley said Schmidgall would have voted yes on the full-day kindergarten question.
Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.