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Superintendent recommends longer day for Palo Alto kindergartners

School board to vote on full-day kindergarten proposals Tuesday

Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Max McGee has weighed in with an official recommendation on a proposal to bring full-day kindergarten to the school district: Kindergartners at eight elementary schools stay slightly longer hours two days a week, starting this fall, while the other four schools would run a full-day model.

Under his recommendation, which the school board will vote on at its Tuesday meeting, kindergartners at Addison, Duveneck, Escondido, Hoover, Juana Briones, Ohlone, Nixon and Walter Hays would stay in school twice a week until the same time that the entire school gets out on Wednesdays. (Wednesday is an early dismissal day at all elementary schools, though the exact dismissal time varies from site to site.) Half the class would stay for the longer day two days a week, and the other half for another two days.

This is very similar to the current "extended-day" model in place at 10 elementary schools, but with students staying slightly longer. (At Addison, for example, kindergartners stay two days a week until noon; under McGee's recommendation, they would stay until 1:15 p.m. instead.)

McGee is recommending that Fairmeadow and El Carmelo, however, adopt the model currently in place at Palo Verde Elementary School, where all kindergartners stay until 2 p.m. four days a week. He said that the principal and teachers at Fairmeadow and El Carmelo see Palo Verde's model as successful and asked to shift to it.

Barron Park Elementary School would remain the only school in the district where students stay for a true full day, until 2:25 p.m., every day except Wednesday.

The benefits of his recommendation, McGee wrote in a staff report, include more time each week for students to learn the existing curriculum, to engage in student-choice activities and to have physical-education and music classes; preservation of small-group time that kindergarten teachers have stressed as critical to the success of the district's youngest students; and more consistent dismissal times with other grades.

Struggling students who need extra help, particularly in reading, will also have more time to get specialized attention two days a week "without the stigma of being pulled out of class," McGee wrote.

Under this plan, the district would add two full-time music and PE teachers and provide a minimum of 10 hours of instructional aide time each week for all kindergarten classes. The estimated total cost for this model is $338,000, according to the district.

The elementary schools would ideally keep their new models for four or five years so the district could study the impact on all students (and targeted subgroups, such as historically underrepresented student or English language learners), McGee wrote in his report.

Full-day kindergarten was first proposed as a means to help Palo Alto close its achievement gap, but evolved into a broader conversation about academics, instructional approaches, social-emotional development and other needs.

The proposal quickly gained both strong support as well as opposition from teachers and parents. Teachers of full-day kindergarten say the extra time makes for a more balanced and enriching school day for both students and teachers. Others who teach in the extended-day model staunchly opposed full-day kindergarten, saying that the afternoon time they spend with smaller groups of about 12 students is the "gold standard" of Palo Alto's early-education model.

Parents, too, have been divided: Some hailed the full-day model as a much-needed and welcome change, while others worried that more hours in the day opens the door to an increasing academic creep in kindergarten that sacrifices play and downtime for academic rigor.

McGee said that most elementary principals support the model he has recommended, and those that don't (Fairmeadow and El Carmelo) prefer the Palo Verde model.

McGee is also offering to the board two alternative models. Under one, called "Model A," the vast majority of students would have a half-day schedule two days a week and a full-day schedule three days a week, while struggling student would attend close to a full day every day. The second, "Model B," would mean all kindergartners attend school from the beginning of the day until approximately 15 minutes prior to dismissal time, except on Wednesdays, when kindergarten students get out of school at the same time as all other elementary students.

The school board will take action on full-day kindergarten proposals as part of a series of budget requests for the 2016-17 year. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10, in the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.

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