Several Palo Alto Unified kindergarten teachers, speaking on behalf of their colleagues, told the school board Tuesday night that they do not support a proposal to implement full-day kindergarten at all elementary schools in the coming school year.
The teachers defended the current practice in place at the majority of Palo Alto's 13 elementary schools, which is called an "extended-day" model: Half of the kindergarten class stays for a longer day, until around 2 p.m., two days each week, allowing teachers to work with students in smaller groups on a regular basis.
One teacher called this model the "gold standard" of the district's kindergarten program. Another said that moving away from it would be a "serious loss."
The primary driver for moving all schools to a full-day model is a recommendation from the district's Minority Achievement and talent Development (MATD) committee, which spent months during the last school year analyzing how to best close Palo Alto's longstanding achievement gap.
Putting support and interventions into place at the earliest points students' careers is critical, the committee found, and the group recommended full-day kindergarten as a way to do that. The group cited as support research that shows full-day kindergarten produces stronger long-term academic achievement and social-emotional growth, particularly for historically underrepresented students but also for all young children.
Some kindergarten teachers, however, "don't feel that full-day kindergarten is the best remedy for a systemic problem," said Corey Potter, a kindergarten teacher at Hoover Elementary School.
"It is a misguided belief to presume that the achievement gap will be closed or decreased by selecting the other proposed options," teacher Barbara Susco said. "In fact, children that need special and individualized attention would be less likely to get it, given that all the children will be present all day.
"Of course, this can be done, but the experience for the children will suffer. Moving to a full-day model would weaken our already strong program," she added.
Currently, Barron Park Elementary School is the only school in the district with full-day kindergarten, in which all students stay until 2:25 p.m. At Palo Verde Elementary, all students stay every day until 2 p.m. (except Wednesday, which is an early dismissal day at all elementary schools).
Addison, Fairmeadow and Hoover have the half-day extended-day model (and Ohlone and Nixon, though their schedules are slightly different). At Escondido, El Carmelo, Juana Briones, Duveneck and Walter Hays, half the class stays for a longer day twice a week, but students who may need extra support, particularly in literacy, also get time with an instructional aide twice a week.
The district is considering the following possible models for the elementary schools:
• Full (or extended) day every day for all students with additional highly trained instructional aide support. This is the most expensive option with an estimated cost of $647,000.
• Full (or extended) day every day for all students with the current level of instructional aide support. Estimated cost is $347,000.
• Maintain the current model, but provide additional highly trained instructional aide support at school two days a week for students who need additional academic, social and emotional help. Estimated cost is $193,000.
• Reduce kindergarten class size at the neighborhood schools to 19. Kindergarten class size at the choice schools and programs will remain at 22. Based on the current enrollment, it is estimated an additional two teachers will be needed to do this. Estimated cost is $275,000, which includes remediation for kindergarten classes with more than 19 students.
• Increase reading specialists by six hours a week. It is estimated an additional 2.4 reading specialists would be needed. Estimated cost is $300,000.
School staff have also discussed allowing parents to opt out of a longer day if they feel their children aren't ready for it.
"I do not want my incoming kindergarten to attend school full time," one mother, Renee, wrote to staff in a comment during the March 16 webinar, stressing the importance of free play for young children. "This is a backwards approach."
The parent of a Palo Verde kindergartner said her son "comes home angry, stressed out, upset and it takes him a couple hours to settle down."
"The idea may be presented as more free time for children in class, but I see mostly more seat work for children who at 5 years old aren't developmentally ready to sit for so many hours doing so much fine-motor work," she said.
Other parents in the webinar expressed support for full-day kindergarten, including one father who called it a "dream come true."
The extra time in a longer kindergarten day would not be given over to academics, Superintendent Max McGee said.
"We do not want kindergarten to become the new first grade, or the new second grade," he said in the webinar. "What we want is more time to ensure the success of all students in achieving our existing goals.
"Do not think we're talking about expanding time just to provide more worksheets and have more academic load. We want more time for play; we want more time for interaction; we want more time for singing; we want more time for music, for being outdoors, more time for student choice of their activities."
Ideally, the extra time would also provide teachers with more flexibility to work with students, not less, McGee said.
"I don't think that a longer day is mutually exclusive with protecting small group time," said board President Heidi Emberling, who works in early childhood education. "I think we have to balance the needs of our community with the needs of our professionals, and we have to listen to our professionals in terms of what the curriculum should be."
Whatever model staff eventually recommend, Emberling and other board members urged staff to preserve downtime and unstructured play.
"My goal is to protect childhood and protect play," Emberling said. "We have got to figure out ways to create playful, fun, interactive, exciting, curiosity-inspiring environments for our youngest students."
Other board members said they wanted more information and input on full-day kindergarten before opining.
McGee has been working with a kindergarten "think tank" group made up of representatives from each elementary school to collect data, read research and gather feedback from the school communities on full-day kindergarten. He said he will bring comments from Tuesday's board meetings back to that group and could return at the board's next meeting on April 19 with a budget recommendation for full-day kindergarten.
To view a recording of the district's "Investing in Kindergarten" webinar, click here.