"That depends

Last week, Gov. Mitch Daniels came forward with his proposal for full-day kindergarten. The governor challenged the General Assembly to put full-day kindergarten in every one of the state’s school districts. He stressed that he was not proposing a so-called pilot program, and that he wants full-day to be “irrevocable.”

Sixty percent of school districts across the country offer full-day kindergarten. Its supporters say that these programs can provide kids, especially poor and minority kids, with a better chance of succeeding in school.

In Indiana, where educational achievement has been a sore point for years, it’s easy to see why full-day kindergarten seems worth a try. But while no one wants to come out and say it, an implicit part of full-day’s appeal is its perceived ability to act as a kind of intervention. At a time when the gap between rich and poor is growing wider and more vexing, many of our social architects believe that the only hope is to put as much distance between poor kids and their households as possible. Studies argue that kids from poor households are at a competitive disadvantage in school because of the way they are raised. Under these circumstances it’s hard to see full-day kindergarten as anything but an attempt by the state to turn schools into surrogate parents.

Can this work? In some cases it probably can. The problem is that in our desperation to solve our educational crisis we have succeeded in pulling our school systems apart. Kids today can go to six different public schools in the same city and experience six different educational models. This, we like to say, is a way of responding to different learning styles; but it also suggests cultural incoherence, a profound lack of confidence on the part of adults whose job it should be to determine what kids need to learn to be educated.

The term “school system” is now an oxymoron. Kids today are educated or not depending on the dedication and creativity of the teachers and principals they happen to come in contact with. It’s dealer’s choice.

When my son was ready to enter kindergarten, my wife and I were glad to find out that we lived near a public school with a kindergarten teacher who was reputedly one of the best in the city. We were thrilled when we learned that our boy was in her class and we looked forward to our first parent-teacher conference.

This experience turned out to be a little disconcerting. Our son’s teacher was seated behind a desk with a cassette tape-player. After my wife and I were seated, the teacher (who we had been assured was a master by a number of acquaintances) proceeded to tell us that because she found herself saying the same things to one set of parents after another, she had recorded her message to us on a tape. After listening to this tape, she would be glad to entertain our questions about her class. She then pressed PLAY and, for the next five minutes or so, the three of us sat there listening to the teacher’s recorded voice and wondering what to look at. It was pretty surreal.

Indeed, it was so surreal that the insult underlying this performance barely dawned on us. That dawn broke early in January when the teacher called to say — no, to demand — that our son be sent to a child psychiatrist and placed on Ritalin. It seemed that on their regular class trips to the library, our son kept reaching for second and third grade books. This, the master teacher said, was inappropriate, a sign of attention deficit disorder. She concluded by saying that she was prepared to recommend our son for the Indianapolis Public Schools gifted and talented program, but that she would withhold her recommendation if we failed to medicate him. We refused and she was true to her word.

Our son was about to get the kindergarten equivalent of a rap sheet, a tag that, if we didn’t head it off, could dog him for the rest of his educational career. My wife and I didn’t feel we had a choice: We pulled our son out of IPS and he went to a private Montessori school for the next three years. He returned to IPS for fourth grade and eventually graduated from Broad Ripple High. I am pleased to say that he will receive a bachelor’s degree this June from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

That’s a happy ending for us. But that’s because we wouldn’t be intimidated and do an idiot’s bidding — and because we had the resources to change course. Kids from disadvantaged households may not be so lucky. Breakfast, lunch and the chance to be out of the house for the day may be enough for their parents to put up with anything. I shudder to think what will happen to kids who are stuck with a teacher like the one my son was assigned for a full day. In our case, half a day was more than enough.

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