Merrimack welcomes students for full-day kindergarten

MERRIMACK – After voters in the Merrimack School District approved full-day kindergarten earlier this year, Kristine Thibault, a kindergarten teacher in the district, wept tears of joy.

An educator for 18 years, she was part of the kindergarten task force, a team of about 10 people dedicated to turning the district’s existing half-day program into a full-day one.

Tuesday, Merrimack opened its doors on the first day of school to a new group of kindergartners, many of whom entered with backpacks on, pencils in hand, ready to learn. It was a day 13 years in the making.

While sitting in Thibault’s class at Reeds Ferry School Tuesday morning, surrounded by 15 children who seemed nervous but excited about starting school, it was first-day business as usual. She introduced herself to the students, gathered them on the carpet for a morning meeting and asked them to pass around a ball. As they passed the ball, the youngsters took turns introducing themselves and sharing their favorite ice cream flavors.

Abigail likes chocolate, Jayce likes mint chocolate chip, Rowan likes vanilla and Leonardo likes strawberry. When the ball reached Wyatt, the very last student, he said “Um, I’m going to need a minute to think about it,” followed by a long pause. Then, he said brightly, “Moose Tracks” but specifically, “in a waffle cone.”

The day was broken into literacy, play, recess/lunch, rest, specialty, math, snack and discovery blocks, although much of Tuesday was devoted to learning the ropes instead of following a strict schedule. They practiced

walking in a line to the water fountain and the lunch room before they were released to the great outdoors for recess. They then returned to the lunch room for their real lunch.

After sandwiches and juice boxes, taking the time to cool down on a hot day (Jayce pressed his ice pack to his face a few times and murmured “Much better,”) they walked back to Thibault’s superhero-themed room for some down time and Play-Doh exploration.

“One, two, three, eyes on me,” Thibault said.

“One, two, eyes on you,” the 15 voices chorused back.

“You know, you are all really brave,” she told them. “It’s halfway through the first day and no one cried – no one missed mom and dad… I’m really proud of you.”

Then, she read Audrey Penn’s “The Kissing Hand,” aloud, followed by an activity during which the children colored in a picture of the book’s main character, Chester the raccoon, and traced the words “Today is the first day of kindergarten.”

“You’re going to write a whole sentence by yourself. How cool is that?” she asked. There was excited whispering from the class.

While they sat and worked, some coloring Chester in bright shades of pink and green, others following more traditional raccoon colors, Thibault stood back and watched them.

“It’s like heaven, having all this time,” she said. In previous years the teachers had to try to fit an entire day’s worth of curriculum into two and a half hours.

“Now they can just ‘be,'” she said, noting their quiet conversations with one another as they worked. “There is so much that a 5-year-old needs …. That social emotional learning component is so important.”

Full-day kindergarten allows students to have art, music, computer and other “specialty” classes, for which the half-day schedule did not allow. The balance between direct instruction, student-led activities and creative expression, the task force argued at a previous presentation to the board, would help to boost the students’ emotional and social intelligence, as well as academic performance, something that will help prepare them for first grade.

Plus these days, Thibault said Tuesday, “Kindergarten is the new first grade” in terms of when serious learning starts to happen and what is expected of the kids.

Her goal for the year is for her students to be confident learners. Of course, she said, she wants them to leave knowing how to read (teaching students to read is one of her passions), but above all, she wants them to know that learning is fun.

And with Play-Doh, coloring and activities, specialty classes and recess, the students had plenty of fun Tuesday.

Ella, for example, said her favorite part about the first day of school was “everything,” though perhaps with the exception of one student who threw up on the carpet.

“Welcome to kindergarten,” Thibault said.

Thibault’s classroom is just one of five at Reeds Ferry and many others at Thorntons Ferry and Mastricola Elementary schools. With the roughly $880,000 allocated for the initiative, the district was able to expand the teaching staff and purchase equipment.

“We are over the moon,” Reeds Ferry Principal Kimberly Yarlott said. “It was overdue.”

There were minimal tears from those getting off the bus in the morning and the students did a great job transitioning to lunch and recess, Yarlott said. However, her real “ah-ha” moment about having full-day kindergarten came in the middle of the day, she said, when they were not dealing with kindergarten dismissal.

This year, Yarlott hopes to foster a positive school climate and build a theme of “teamwork” in the school. There will be professional development to help the kindergarten teachers switch to the way the curriculum is meant to be taught, versus the more condensed version they had to make due with before. They will also be assessing the young students early to better determine how to make the curriculum suit their needs.

But as far as kindergarten is concerned, Yarlott said the goal is to “give them a positive start to their school years.”

Hannah LaClaire can be reached at 594-1243 or