Full-day Kindergarten in Bellingham School District

By the 2017-18 school year, every school district in Washington state must provide full-day kindergarten. Change is never easy, but it’s easier when there are models of how to make a smooth, successful transition.  Bellingham School District took early steps to implement a full-day of learning and offers a model of smooth and successful transition for other districts both within Washington and beyond. One important lesson from Bellingham -- and worth calling attention to right from the start -- is that a seamless shift cannot happen without an intentional plan to train teachers and principals on how to maximize the new time to teach in the ways that young children learn best.

The Transition

Bellinghams’s full-day K transition started six years ago. During my student teaching year, I had the opportunity to be part of the initial six full-day kindergarten classrooms. Without a doubt, we, pilot teachers, felt completely supported by my district in making this transition.

The district started with just our six pilot classrooms all at different schools. It strategically rolled out the change with intentional training and support for teachers. We investigated the HighScope Curriculum, which provided us the opportunity to reflect on best practices and shape our pedagogical beliefs and foundations. The district brought in an outside High Scope consultant to align our practices and decide what our full-day kindergarten model was going to look like. Each classroom was given a budget to successfully implement a high-quality environment with developmentally appropriate materials based on the common agreements we had made as a team. Not only were we buying conventional items but also thought deeply about developing the imagination of the child by also unconventional items.

During this time, the team of six kindergarten teachers started to think creatively about how to provide equitable, high-quality experiences for all kindergartens. A kindergarten guide was developed for the district, which outlines the materials, daily structures, and pedagogical philosophies. This guide facilitated alignment and equity as the district opened three more full-day kindergarten classrooms the following year. The teachers who were part of the original six pilot classrooms become teacher leaders, serving as models and coaches for future classrooms making the transition.

The Superintendent quickly recognized the benefits of providing full-day K and expanded district wide. To further solidify the district’s commitment to quality, leadership hired an Early Childhood Education Coordinator. Kristi Dominguez was hired for this position and is responsible for prenatal through 3rd grade. She connects the district with pre-K and community partners, helping to make vertical alignment seamless. Dominguez has also ensured fidelity of a high-quality kindergarten model and provided much needed training and professional development to teachers and principals in what strong teaching and learning look like in a kindergarten classroom.

At first, parents and teachers alike questioned if full-day K was appropriate for every child. As part of the training, teachers were gifted the time to learn about what was developmentally appropriate and a daily schedule that was conducive to a full day. Teachers were trained in early learning practices that incorporated flexible and differentiated instruction for students. We learned about appropriate academic, social, and emotional expectations for our students.

After the training, most teachers saw the benefits of full-day K and the new instructional strategies. For some, though, only time would be the solution. They needed to see the benefits for all children. Full-day kindergartners were moving onto 1st grade ready to function at a high level in the classroom. Students were able to make independent choices at a higher level, engage cooperatively with others, and summer learning loss was less because students were able to apply more frequently what they were learning and deeply imbed the learned skills, habits and behaviors of school.

Kindergarten in Bellingham

Full-day K is about more time! More intentional time! It’s what we, as teachers, do with our time that matters: how we structure the day and how we implement developmentally appropriate practice (teaching in ways that young children learn best) in a high-quality environment.

The model below suggests that teachers think about their year in this way: the first 9 weeks looks more like preschool, the next 18 weeks is implementing a high-quality kindergarten program and the final 9 weeks looking more like a 1st grade classroom. The students transition throughout the year at their own pace. Teachers respond to the child – recognizing strengths and next steps – and creating social/emotional, academic, oral language, fine motor and language goals appropriate to the individual child.

Full-day Kindergarten in Bellingham School District
(New America)

A vital element to the Bellingham day is the district’s initiative that all kindergarten classrooms MUST have 60-90 minutes of play built into each day and held sacred by the teacher. This play is intentional, appropriate and planned. It must not be a time when teachers pull small groups but rather guide and facilitate play so that the level of play can deepen among the students. During this time, I believe, is the time when children are making the most meaningful connections. It is also the time to get the most accurate data on students: if the student is using the skill in play, I know that the skill is ingrained in the student since he/she is using it independently, for their own purposes. Bellingham implements the High Scope’s “Plan-Do-Review” model where students make a plan orally (and gradually move into writing it in a planner toward the end of the year), engage in the play for an extended amount of time, and then clean and review or share their experiences and discoveries through play.

Quality in Kindergarten

There is no one right way to make kindergarten appropriate and high quality; however, there are some key components to consider when planning for and implementing a high quality program:

The learning environment serves as a 2nd teacher, a tool for students that can be co-created as the year progresses so that students use the walls in meaningful ways and take ownership over the classroom. Kindergarteners LOVE to see their names on the walls, pictures of themselves, their artwork and the co-constructed anchor charts. These artifacts of learning adorn the walls in a colorful way. There is really no place for teacher store signage – students can create their print-rich environment through shared and interactive writing. Kindergarten is controlled chaos, messy with learning. Intentional room arrangement and flow make for successful transitions and unique places for children to learn and grow. Play centers including the: home area, block area, art area, library area, writing area, and toy (math) area promote oral language, choice, and authentic learning environments to make meaningful connections.

Block Area
(New America)
Library Area
(New America)

Choiceownership, & management is embedded throughout the structure of the day. The routines and procedures are put in place and kids are free to make the learning choices they need to make. The early childhood notion of bottom lines comes into play here. If the Teacher's bottom line is that the student needs to be making a reading choice, then the student chooses what to read and where to read and with that, the student just met my expectation. My expectations are not lowered, they remain high and I give the locus of control to the student to make his/her own decisions. The choices are guided and intentional. I set the parameters and students make the choices. They take ownership over their learning in this way and become self-managers and independent. I foster this throughout the first 4-5 months of kindergarten. I don’t pull small reading groups until after the 1st of the year. I pull half the class starting at the beginning of the year and teach EVERYTHING: how to use the tape dispenser, how to put the caps on the markers, how much glue needs to be put on the googly eye.

Go slow to go fast: this is how I think about it. Come January, we are ready to rock and roll with small groups because my students have had enough scaffolds and supports to become problem solvers and self-managers.

Authentic and engaging experiences are at the heart of each day. I don’t teach through thematic units. Teddy bear and alien units have no place in a high-quality kindergarten classroom. I teach readers, writers, and mathematicians. This is where the Common Core State Standards rigor comes into play. I teach students how to love reading through engaging read alouds and shared reading texts. I teach them how to tell a story through wordless picture books, developing their oral language and comprehension skills. I teach students how to love writing through books, interactive writing, shared writing and the writing workshop model. Students learn to tell a story through a picture using shapes and lines. We learn to care for one another and our classroom by showing respect to our classroom materials and taking care of each other’s hearts. Students learn to walk in 2 lines, to manage themselves by sitting near people who make them better learners.

We learn how to function in school. We engage in exploring math manipulatives and counting, so much counting. I plan trips to the class garden to measure what we planted and engage in the science of habitats of the creatures in the garden. Children are talking, laughing, playing, more talking, getting dirty, exploring, discovering, asking questions and even more talking. Our classroom is built upon foundational pillars of fine motor and oral language development. High quality doesn’t mean more stuff it means digging deeper into the goodness we plant as the foundational skills of school.

Play is endangered in our schools today. Preserving this will benefit all children and their development. Play is at the heart of what five- and six- year-olds need to make meaningful connections. This is when the Common Core State Standards can be practiced and made sense of for children. Play is not a “free-for-all” but a methodically planned, structured time in the day when students can have the power to create and explore and play.

Students can create Lego houses based on actual blueprints, students can play restaurant and take orders and create the menu, they can make invitations for the birthday party they are throwing for their peers or paint a picture of a rainbow and label it: “rnbo”. This is the perfect time for formative observational assessment. I can note that students can follow a plan and read an instructional manual to create the Lego house, I can take note of the late invented spelling stage of the child who writes the menu for the restaurant. For an extended period of time, children can engage in play, the teacher can guide and facilitate the next steps of students. This is vital to their social and emotional development and allows authentic time for students to practice their problem solving skills, fostering independence and self-reliance

(New America)

High quality cannot be found in a canned curriculum. It can only be found in a classroom that is responsive to children and their developmental needs as learners. With the implementation of Common Core and with more attention on high-stakes testing, it can be hard for teachers to find the balance between what their district administrators and principals are asking them to do and what they know is best for children. It can be detrimental for children's development if the research on how they learn best is ignored.

Kindergarten teachers everywhere are doing good work.  I believe that being reflective in our practice is what can make the biggest difference. Educating principals and administrators on the pedagogical practices of early learning and what it means to be developmentally appropriate will make it easier to see the change we want to see in our schools. Most importantly, as districts and schools make the transition from a half-day to a full-day program, it is essential to keep kids at the forefront of our minds. Teachers and principals will need guidance and support to ensure that every kindergartner experiences a high-quality, developmentally appropriate classroom where they feel safe, loved, and stimulated as they learn and grow.

Nina Ballew shared her insights for a PreK-3rd National Work Group webinar on full-day kindergarten. Watch it here.


Nina Ballew is a kindergarten teacher at Birchwood Elementary School in Bellingham, Washington.