The Palo Alto school board decided Tuesday night to put off voting on a proposal to move the majority of the district's kindergarteners to a longer school day until its next meeting.
After several months of discussion with the elementary school communities about moving to a full-day kindergarten model, Superintendent Max McGee recommended this week that kindergartners at eight sites stay slightly longer hours two days a week, starting this fall, while the other four schools would run a full-day model. The primary driver for the longer day is to help support struggling students and reduce Palo Alto's achievement gap, but proponents argue that a full-day model benefits all students.
Under McGee's recommendation, 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. Nixon is considering this model, however, McGee said.
McGee proposed that all schools keep their new model for four or five years to give the district time to study the effect of the different schedules on students. This model would cost an estimated $338,000 to pay for additional instructional aides and music and physical-education teachers, according to the district.
Only one board member, Camille Townsend, said she was ready to support McGee's recommendation as is. Board President Heidi Emberling and Trustee Ken Dauber said they would rather put a full-day model in place at all of the district's elementary schools. Vice President Terry Godfrey said while "I feel like some investment in it is right, I don't feel at the moment qualified to say if the model is the right one or not."
Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell expressed concern about the variation McGee's proposal creates among the 12 elementary schools.
"I've had some parents come up to me who feel like they're in the losing school group," she said, "and it reminds me of the conversation we've had in the past where (parents say), 'If I don't get to choose what school I go to, then why are the schools so different?'
"These are really big differences," she said.
Dauber added that he was "prepared to support a proposal for full-day kindergarten across the district because it reflects a coherent philosophy in addressing the achievement gap."
The current proposal, he said, "doesn't reflect a coherent philosophy."
"I think until it's clear why we would have this variation and that it has some principled basis, this is not a proposal that I think makes sense," Dauber said.
Emberling referred to full-day kindergarten as a "golden opportunity for the district" and urged staff to pursue a full-day model that starts at the beginning of the school year at all elementary schools. She asked staff to consider what other budget items could be reduced in order to fund a true full-day model at all schools.
One kindergarten teacher and several parents spoke out against the proposal at Tuesday's meeting. Duveneck Elementary School kindergarten teacher Barbara Suzco, a member of a kindergarten "think tank" that McGee convened to research the topic, said his recommendation did not honor the group's majority opinion. At the same meeting teachers and administrators were presented with his recommendation and two other alternatives, they were asked to say which model they preferred for their school, she said.
Parents who spoke said they were worried that a longer day will inevitably mean more academics rather than free or play time, regardless of the district's stated commitment to balancing both. One mother said her first-grader comes home "exhausted" after school and another whose kindergartner "dreads" going to school every day and needs an hour to unwind after he gets home.
"I'm concerned that what sounds great in a presentation plays out very differently in real-life application," said Julie Tomasz, the mother of two students at Duveneck. Last month, Tomasz started an online petition opposing full-day kindergarten that has gathered 107 signatures.
Fifteen families at Nixon, however, have signed a letter in support of moving to the full-day model, parent Josh Knowles told the board.
The district also received letters of support from parents who could not attend the meeting; at least 13 were included in the board packet.
"Thank you for understanding that a longer day does not mean additional/more academic work as well as considering the benefits for self-regulation, connectedness, choice, agency, empathy, free play, self-exploration, etc.," wrote Peggy Yao, the parent of an incoming kindergartner.
"Without full day kindergarten, first grade is a time of (sic) rapid and stressful 'catch up' where significant parent involvement and a great deal of investment by first grade teachers has to be devoted to learning what could/should have been learned during kindergarten," wrote Nixon parent Diana Farid. "It is a shame that such a well resourced district has deprived these learners of time to more fully develop capacity for future learning."
The school board decided to pull full-day kindergarten from a series of budget requests it was set to vote on Tuesday night and reconsider it at its next meeting on May 24.
The board also postponed action to its next meeting on the following budget requests: $164,000 over two years for two high school "wellness outreach workers;" $100,000 for breakfast for low-income elementary school students; $300,000 to provide a full-time reading specialist at every elementary school; $111,059 in additional staffing at the district office; and $100,000 for high school athletic programs.
The board pulled out and unanimously approved three budget requests that staff said were more time sensitive: $150,000 to provide more math intervention specialists at the high schools; $1,075,000 to hire six teachers over two years at the high schools and $750,000 to hire six teachers over two years at the middle schools.