While many 5-year-olds in Palo Alto spend most of their week-day afternoons in day-care programs, after-school activities or at home, kindergartners at Barron Park Elementary School are still in school.
On a recent afternoon in Athena Foley's kindergarten class, small groups of four students rotated through different activities: While some read a picture book with Foley, others independently played an interactive word game that teaches sight words (frequently appearing words, like "the" or "and"), colored or listened to a recording of "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Frog!" Multiple days a week, there is plenty of time in the afternoon for art, play, music and other activities.
This flexible time in the afternoon is made possible by a full-day kindergarten model in which students stay until 2:25 p.m. every day except Wednesdays, which is an early dismissal day at all Palo Alto elementary schools. Palo Verde is the only other Palo Alto elementary school to operate a very similar program, in which kindergartners stay until 2 p.m. four days a week (though it is technically considered an "extended" rather than "full" day under the teachers' contract, to accommodate a different teacher prep time than the Barron Park teachers have).
Kindergartners at the other 10 elementary schools attend for fewer hours each week. In what is called an extended half-day model, one half of the class leaves around noon while the other half stays for about two hours twice a week. This model provides students with targeted and often one-on-one time with teachers. At Escondido, El Carmelo, Juana Briones, Duveneck, and Walter Hays elementary schools, students who need extra support are also tutored by an instructional aide two days a week.
All schools transition to their respective schedule, whether full- or extended-day, in October to allow kindergartners and parents time to adjust.
Now, the school district is considering the expansion of full-day kindergarten to all 12 elementary schools. In February, Superintendent Max McGee convened a kindergarten "think tank" group, made up of 13 kindergarten teachers and administrators, to collect feedback from the school communities and develop potential models.
Full-day kindergarten offers a multitude of benefits to all students, both academically and in social development, say proponents of the model. It has been shown to particularly help minority and low-income students, a fact that has some supporters hoping it can be used to stem the achievement gap that occurs in later school years between these students and others.
The kindergarten think tank, led by McGee, has proposed three models for the district: One, maintain the extended-day model with two days of additional instructional aide time, but also bring in a certified reading specialist for one-and-a-half hours a day, two days a week to provide extra support in literacy and language development.
A second option would be to expand the Palo Verde or Barron Park model throughout the district, but cap class sizes at 19 students or fewer. Currently, kindergarten classes range from 17 to 23 students, according to the district.
A third proposal is to expand the Barron Park model, but add additional trained instructional aide time so there are two adults in the class during key instructional time blocks. Music and physical education, taught by specialists, would also be added to the weekly schedule in the last model.
Reaction to the new kindergarten proposals has been mixed. Teachers of full-day kindergarten say the extra time makes for a more balanced and enriching school day for both students and teachers. Magdalena Fittoria, former principal of Barron Park, said the school's shift to the full day in 2011 brought a "sense of relief" for teachers worried that the half day meant sacrificing play time and less-formal learning activities in order to fit in all required academic learning. Likewise, teachers at Palo Verde felt so time-crunched that they lobbied the teacher's union for a waiver that allowed them to move to a 2 p.m. dismissal time in the 2013-14 school year.
Yet extended-day kindergarten teachers oppose the shift, saying that the afternoon time they spend with groups of about 12 students is the "gold standard" of Palo Alto's early-education model. To move away from that would be a "serious loss" and would "weaken our already strong program," several teachers told the school board at its March 22 meeting.
Palo Alto parents are similarly divided. Some say they're happy with the current extended-day model and believe any financial investment in closing the achievement gap would be better made in interventions and programs specifically designed for students who need extra support.
Other parents worry that their 5-year-olds are not ready to attend a full day of school, and that more hours in the day opens the door to an increasing academic creep in kindergarten that sacrifices play and downtime for academic rigor.
One Duveneck Elementary School parent started a Change.org petition that asks the board to keep the extended-day model, which "most directly addresses helping those of our learners who would benefit from additional, targeted support get what they need, without depriving them and all other kindergartners of the priceless, progressive small-groups experience currently enjoyed by children at all but two of our elementary schools."
Others support the full-day model: They say it gives their children needed structure, more hours in the day with a certificated teacher (preferable for some to being in daycare for the afternoon) and better prepares them for later years of elementary school.
Similar arguments were made for both sides in 1998 in Palo Alto, when then-Superintendent Don Phillips proposed full-day kindergarten as a means to reduce class sizes. After the proposal sparked some controversy among parents, the plan was reworked, and the extended half-day model small groups staying after lunch two days a week was put in place.
What the research says
Research has found that the full-day model offers kindergartners strong short-term academic and developmental benefits, and particularly so to disadvantaged children, but research is less conclusive on the long-term impacts.
According to a policy brief on full-day kindergarten prepared by WestEd, a San Francisco non-partisan education-research nonprofit, a full day better prepares kindergartners for primary-grade learning, eases their transition to first grade, leads to higher academic achievement and better attendance rates, reduces transitions or potential disruptions throughout the day, supports literacy and language development and benefits children's social and emotional development.
A 2004 analysis conducted of a national study of first-time public school kindergartners, sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that children in full-day classes made greater gains in reading and mathematics during the kindergarten year compared to those attending half-day classrooms, after accounting for other child and classroom characteristics.
A later study of that same data found, however, that these academic gains did not last through third grade.
Studies of Palo Alto's full-day kindergarten students seem to counter the later study: Both Barron Park and Palo Verde kindergartners maintained higher end-of-year reading scores through second grade than their peers at other schools, according to data provided by the district.
Full-day kindergarten has also steadily been becoming the norm rather than the exception across the nation. Since 1977, the percentage of kindergartners enrolled in full-day (in contrast to half-day) programs has nearly tripled, increasing from 28 to 77 percent between 1977 and 2013, according to Child Trends, a national research nonprofit. More than 10 states now require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten programs.
Locally, several nearby districts offer full-day kindergarten. Ravenswood City School District provides full-day kindergarten and transititional kindergarten. Kindergartners at Menlo Park City School District's three elementary schools are in school until about 3 p.m. (except for a school-wide early dismissal one day a week). The Woodside Elementary School District has long offered the full day; kindergartners get out at 2:30 p.m. Portola Valley School District has since 2003 taken a staggered approach: The year starts with half-day kindergarten, then shifts to the full day in February.
What matters most in any kindergarten classroom, regardless of its length, is the teacher's ability to manage the class time, said Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and early-childhood education researcher.
"There are full-day kindergarten teachers who really fritter away the potential benefits of the additional time," Stipek said in an interview. "Really good teachers not only take good advantage of it, but they also know how to organize the pace of the day so that kids ... have time to play, they have time for rest they know how to organize the day so that it works for 5- or 6-year-olds."
"If you care about your kid's experience, then you need to care about the training and support that teachers receive because that's going to matter more than anything else," Stipek said.
Leveling the playing field
The primary driver for moving to a full-day model in Palo Alto is the school district's longstanding achievement gap. The district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee a group of teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members who convened last year to probe the underlying reasons that many students of color in the district have fallen behind their peers came to see full-day kindergarten as a means to level the playing field at the earliest point possible.
The group was alarmed to find that many of the district's high school students of color who did not meet the state's so-called "A-G" graduation requirements had also not met benchmark reading requirements by third grade. They saw a link between low numbers of students of color in advanced high school classes and the students' achievement in elementary school.
Looking at a "significant" body of research that indicated students with access to full-day kindergarten ended up better prepared academically, socially and emotionally, the committee "strongly" recommended the district implement full- or extended-day kindergarten for all students who need the extra support, Superintendent Max McGee said in an interview.
Even at the start of kindergarten, Palo Alto students from poorer and minority families can already be at a disadvantage: Though most students enter kindergarten with some kind of preschool experience, many in full-day programs, those who have not tend to come from historically underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged families. (It is a myth, though, that students who come to Palo Alto through the district's Voluntary Transfer Program have had no preschool experience; about 66 percent of those students have, according to Judy Argumedo, who oversees the VTP, or Tinsley, program.)
The district does offer one semester of transitional kindergarten to children who have not attended preschool through its Springboard to Kindergarten program, but not all families take advantage of it, according to the minority-achievement committee.
Other factors that create a disparity in school readiness: Some Palo Alto students have been reading at home from an early age and attending preschool at places like Stanford University's Bing Nursery School, where a year of care can cost as much as $15,750.
Adding to students' disadvantage throughout the school year, is the fact that with a half-day model, affluent families are more likely to be able to fill the afternoon with high-quality after-school care, activities and enrichment opportunities, at home or elsewhere. Minority and low-income students lack those opportunities.
Kim Bomar, a parent-member of achievement committee and co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success, which supports families of color in the district, raised the issue of full-day kindergarten with the committee. She had discovered that kindergartners at her son's elementary school, Nixon, were not meeting state benchmarks for reading by first grade. Parents on the Nixon site council became concerned that the shorter school day was contributing to low reading achievement. Her own son, who had started reading at age 3, started to regress when he got to kindergarten, she said.
Bomar, for her part, made up the reading slack at home. A stay-at-home mom who worked from home, she was also able to take care of her children in the afternoons, often taking them on educational excursions to places like the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, or to other children's houses for playdates.
For some, a 'sense of relief'
Fittoria was principal of Barron Park when the school moved to a full-day model with the goal of closing the opportunity gap. Given Barron Park's population, with high percentages of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, students of color and English-language learners, teachers and school leadership saw a full day as one way to better support these students.
The longer day ultimately benefited all students, Fittoria said and teachers.
"I would describe it as a sense of relief," she said of teachers' reactions. "You just kind of breathe because now you can get in the academics, but you can do so much more that's enrichment and social skills."
With the full day, the school was able to add physical education and music, taught by specialists, into the kindergarten curriculum for the first time. There was more time for creative play, art, dance, student choice time and extra lessons brought in through collaboration with outside organizations like the Junior Museum & Zoo and Living Classroom, which provides hands-on experience in school gardens, Fittoria said.
The school even added Spanish instruction for several years, though it was too costly to sustain.
Barron Park kindergarten teachers Tina Franceschi, a member of the district's kindergarten think tank group, and Athena Foley said they haven't had to sacrifice small-group work in the full-day model; in fact, it allows for more of it. They have plenty of time to teach two 35-minute reading and writing lesson plans that require whole-class instruction, small group work and one-on-one conferences, as well as rotate students through math-focused stations for an hour and then art, science and choice activities later in the day. While the class is doing different activities, they can also seamlessly bring in specialists to work with those students who might need extra help.
Last year, all but one Barron Park kindergartner went to first-grade reading at grade level, according to Principal Anne Brown.
Another merit of the full day, its supporters say, is that struggling students don't feel singled-out by being asked to stay extra time after school.
When Palo Verde moved to a longer kindergarten day, Brown, who was then the principal there, said she saw an immediate impact. Students' stamina for reading and writing improved.
Palo Verde parent Nanda Garber said she chose the school specifically for her first-grade son because of the longer day. He had already attended a full-day preschool and does well with structure, she said. Being among other children for more hours in the day under the supervision of a certificated teacher helped him "thrive."
"It really helps him and I don't mean just educationally speaking," she told the Weekly. "Socially, it just helps him. At school he is much better able to self-regulate."
She said she also saw a healthy balance between academics and play in her son's kindergarten classroom.
Another mother who wrote in during a webinar on kindergarten that McGee held earlier this year said she saw the full day make an academic difference between her daughter, who went to the part-day model, and a friend who attended full day.
"Her current year in first grade seems to be a catch-up year where the teacher has to work extra hard and intensive to get incoming kindergartners up to speed," she wrote of her daughter's experience. "Our daughter attended after-school care for the second half of her day. That time would be much better spent in a classroom environment with a credentialed teacher."
She does not want that for her son, who will enter kindergarten in 2017, she wrote.
'A serious loss'
At the March 22 school board meeting, a small group of kindergarten teachers who said they were representing the voice of many of their peers decried moving to the full-day model.
The primary "loss," they said, would be the low teacher-to-student ratio they can achieve when half their classes stay twice a week in the extended half-day model. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the ideal ratio for kindergarten classes is one to 11 for a group of 22 students and 1 to 12 for a group of 24 students.
"We are concerned about the fuzzy logic that proposes we eliminate the gold standard, the 1 to 12 small group instructional block, and replace it with 22 students all day," one teacher told the board. "In our professional opinion, this is a serious loss."
Hoover kindergarten teacher Corey Potter, also a member of the district's kindergarten think tank, said: "For a teacher, being able to work with a small group of students requires the rest of the class to be able to sustain on task independently, to be able to problem solve when the teacher is otherwise engaged and to self-regulate. These are just a few of the essential skills my students learn in those afternoons with fewer distractions, with fewer peers competing for their teacher's attention."
They also questioned the driving force behind moving to the full day, with one teacher calling it a "misguided belief" to think that a longer day will close the achievement gap.
"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," said Duveneck kindergarten teacher Barbara Susco, also a think-tank member.
The teachers who spoke at the board meeting did support one of the district's three proposals: to maintain the extended day with two days of additional instructional aide time, but adding additional time with a certified reading specialist two days a week to provide extra support in literacy and language development.
Specialists shared among the schools are currently spread too thin, and the full-time assignment of a reading specialist to a single school would directly benefit the students, Susco said.
How many teachers are opposed to full-day kindergarten is a matter of debate, with one teacher, Escondido's Debbie Scalero, saying at the March board meeting there is "unanimous" opposition among kindergarten teachers from nine elementary schools (all except Barron Park, Palo Verde and Nixon) while others saying that teachers with a minority opinion at their schools may fear speaking out.
At Barron Park, the first year of full day was a "challenging" transition, Fittoria said. There was an unanticipated spike in kindergarten enrollment that fall, which meant the school had to scramble to bring in a part-time teacher; the school was in the midst of rolling out new inclusion practices, which was hard with a larger group in a new schedule; and there was a "mindset" shift teachers themselves had to make, she said.
Doubling the school's hours of instructional aide time made a huge difference and still does today, teachers said. Franceschi said aides are critical to a successful full-day program, but Potter questioned whether enough aides could be hired to make the proposed program work effectively.
Teachers also noted at the board meeting that the model they prefer is also the least expensive, with an estimated cost of $300,000 for additional reading-specialist time. To expand the Palo Verde model to the other elementary schools could cost between $275,000 and $325,000, according to the district, and even more to expand the Barron Park model ($525,000 to $600,000).
The most costly option would be to expand the Barron Park model with additional instructional aide time (about $650,000).
McGee has said that all of these costs are "not just doable this year but also sustainable." The funds needed to make any change would come out of the district's own budget.
The 'new first grade'?
Parents who oppose full-day kindergarten, for their part, worry about its contribution to an early-education trend being studied, observed and reported on across the country: kindergarten becoming the "new first grade."
Researchers say that accountability pressures from the federal government's No Child Left Behind, despite the fact assessments started in the third grade, trickled down into the lower primary grades. A 2016 University of Virginia study that compared public school classrooms from 1998 and 2010 saw an increase in time spent on math, literacy, reading and other academic skills at the expense of music, art and play.
In Palo Alto, parents worry that a culture of high achievement and academic stress could even be reaching the district's youngest students.
An anonymous mother wrote in to the kindergarten webinar last month that her "compliant" son, a current kindergartner at Palo Verde, comes home after the longer day "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."
Another parent, Renee, wrote that she is "alarmed that the warning bells are not ringing."
"We need to allow our kindergartners a shorter school day. I do not want my incoming kindergarten to attend school full time. This is a backwards approach," she wrote.
Full-day kindergarten is a "huge mistake," and "is not in the best interests of these young children," Liz Price wrote in a letter to the editor to the Palo Alto Weekly.
"To increase the pressure on children in kindergarten, and dramatically decrease the amount of time they have after school for recuperation, will only lead to even more stress and burnout in kindergartners!" she wrote.
McGee and other school officials have stressed that more hours in the day will not translate into more academic work, but rather more time for teachers to strike a better balance between academics and play.
"We do not want kindergarten to become the new first grade, or the new second grade," McGee told webinar viewers on March 16. "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."
But some parents say it should be up to them how their children spend their unstructured time. Jenny Dixon, the parent of an incoming kindergartner, first- and third-grader at Duveneck, said her older children benefited from having downtime at home in the afternoon.
School officials have reminded parents that kindergarten itself in California is optional, and they can also opt out of the longer day if it was implemented. (Their children would only attend in the morning.) No parents opted out at Palo Verde, Brown said. Only one family did at Barron Park, according to Fittoria, and the child ended up coming back.
Other parents in the district, happy with the current extended-day arrangement, think support should be need-based, tailored to the children who need it the most.
"Not all children need to stay," Hoover parent Indira Priyadarsani said in an interview.
A fall start
Palo Alto families with young children could be facing a new kindergarten model as soon as this fall. McGee has said the district hopes to roll out a new, unified schedule for the 2016-17 school year.
The school board will fully discuss the proposals on Tuesday, May 10, as part of a larger budget discussion. They will vote at a later date.
School board President Heidi Emberling, who works in early-childhood education, said in a district with a history of paying "lip service" to closing the achievement gap, the kindergarten proposal is a concrete investment worth making.
"I think in our district we've often done pandering around our achievement gap and opportunity gap and because it's so challenging, have done less actual piloting of innovative techniques for minimizing the achievement gap," she told the Weekly. "Everyone does a lot of lip service to 'you have to get in early; you have to start early; 0 to 5 is the best time where you can really influence a child's development,' and yet we haven't put the resources behind the lip service."
Full-day kindergarten is no panacea for a problem as deep-seated as the achievement gap, but McGee offered this refrain to those who oppose changing the current model: "If you do things the way you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got," he said during the webinar.
"(That's the) definition of insanity. It's also the definition of restricting opportunities and access for a large percentage of our population," he said. "Something has to change."