Michael Clark: Bill on full-day kindergarten would expand choices for Utah families

Without help from the Legislature, too few families have access to full-day kindergarten.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergarten teacher Connie Orton, reads to her students at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018.

Just a few months into the COVID pandemic, I became the executive director of Summit Academy Charter Schools in Utah. I was a Utah-based educator and school leader for years prior to this role, and was myself educated in Utah, with degrees from Southern Utah University, Western Governors University and Utah State University.

One thing I have learned in my time working in and with Utah charter schools is that Utah parents want options. Every family is different, and every child — even within the same family — is different, too. Moms and dads should be able to select the academic path that’s right for their kids, regardless of how much money they make or where they live.

Right now, Summit Academy parents — and too many other parents across Utah — are not able to do that, at least not when it comes to their kindergarten-aged children.

Many Summit Academy parents want to be able to choose full-day kindergarten if they believe it is best for their students. Due to limited funding, we can’t offer them that choice. Sadly, we aren’t alone.

Many school districts and charter schools can only offer full-day kindergarten programming to the most academically at-risk students. Some, like Summit Academy, are not able to offer any full-day kindergarten opportunities at all. In fact, only about 30% of kindergarten students in Utah get to participate in full-day kindergarten, a much lower rate than we see in our neighbor states.

This means most parents do not have a real choice for their children when it comes to kindergarten. It’s half-day kindergarten or nothing.

Summit Academy currently offers only half-day kindergarten to the families we serve. This, despite the fact that I personally and wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of full-day kindergarten. It is the best option for many our youngest students.

We would offer full-day kindergarten if we had the resources to do so. And if we did offer full-day kindergarten at all our campuses, I know that many parents would enthusiastically enroll their children.

Many parents in lower- and middle-income families can’t afford preschool for their little ones. Some families are not able to offer their children the type of at-home early learning support that we wish all kids could have. These children still deserve the chance to start their academic journey off on the right foot.

Full-day kindergarten is a great way to give students that start. It builds a foundation for success in subsequent grades and helps avoid late-stage interventions that can be time-consuming, less effective, and expensive.

I believe HB193, Full-Day Kindergarten, recently introduced at the Utah Legislature by Rep. Steve Waldrip of Ogden, will pave the way for Summit Academy to expand kindergarten choices for families.

I know that many other charter school directors and school principals, in every corner of Utah, are also excited by the opportunities this bill presents. The three-year roll out of full-day kindergarten funding in this bill will give us time to prepare our facilities, hire teachers and ensure we have the materials we need to build up our kindergarten programs.

Parents are their children’s first and best teacher. They shepherded their children toward the knowledge and skills they need to be happy and successful in life.

To do what is best for their own children, parents need the chance to decide for themselves what kind of kindergarten program is the best fit for their family. HB193 will let schools offer all parents that choice.

Michael Clark | Summit Academy

Michael Clark is the executive director of Summit Academies, a public charter school with campuses in Draper and Bluffdale.