All kindergartners entering the Palo Alto Unified School District this fall and in future years will attend school for a full day under a proposal the school board approved Tuesday night, despite opposition from parents and a claim that the majority of kindergarten teachers do not support this shift.
Only board member Camille Townsend opposed the proposal, which was recommended by Superintendent Max McGee with the consensus of all 12 elementary-school principals, he said Tuesday.
McGee offered this recommendation after initially making two weeks ago what he described as a "compromise" proposal to extend the kindergarten day only two days a week at some schools and four days a week at others. He said he reconsidered the compromise after the board expressed concerns over a lack of consistency among the schools.
The board members cast their votes after hearing from several concerned parents and teachers that moving to a longer kindergarten day will harm, not benefit, students. Several teachers maintained that the current model in place at most schools, where one half of each class stays longer two days a week, is the best way to provide small-group instruction and maintain a balance between academics and play. Opponents also drew a connection between the longer school day and higher stress levels, even at this young age.
"A vote for full-day kindergarten is a vote to make kindergarten look like first grade," said Escondido Elementary School kindergarten teacher Debbie Scalero. "It is a vote to watch the magic, creativity and wonder of kindergarten dramatically decline."
"Please, please hear us: Longer kindergarten is not better kindergarten," said Duveneck Elementary School parent Julie Tomasz, who last month started an online petition against full-day kindergarten. The petition has since garnered 146 signatures.
Speakers also urged the board to press pause on what they felt was a "rushed" process to put a change in place by this fall. They asked how the district planned to make this change without the full backing of the very teachers who will be responsible for implementation. Several board members, too, asked for more details around an implementation plan.
McGee said he was confident that principals and teachers will be able to work together at individual sites to successfully shift to the longer day.
"I know clearly that this recommendation is not what the majority of the kindergarten teachers prefer but I will tell you that I believe in my heart of hearts that this recommendation model best serves all students, and that is my job as superintendent," he said.
The catalyst for the full-day shift was a recommendation from McGee's Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) committee, which said that leveling the playing field for historically underrepresented students at the earliest point in their district careers was key to helping to reduce Palo Alto Unified's longstanding achievement gap.
Proponents of full-day kindergarten, including current teachers at Barron Park, have also said that the longer day allows for a more relaxed, balanced pace and, in fact, means more small-group time with students throughout the day, not less.
A few speakers did offer support for full-day kindergarten Tuesday night, including parent and MATD member Gina Dalma. In months of research, data analysis and focus groups, the group found that full-day kindergarten is "one of the single most impactful strategies" to closing the achievement gap," she said.
"Why the rush?" she asked. "Because our kids are entering behind."
"This is our opportunity to be a lighthouse district on kindergarten," she added. "Sadly, today, we are not."
Under the new model, all kindergartners will attend school for the full primary day, starting in mid-October. This will be a significant change for some, but not all of Palo Alto's elementary schools. Barron Park and Palo Verde elementary schools already offer a longer school day four days a week (except Wednesday, which is an early-dismissal day at all elementary schools), but the other 10 schools operate on the extended half-day model.
McGee has recommended that the elementary schools cap the maximum number of weekly instructional minutes at 1,550, which is the current number at Barron Park.
All kindergarten classrooms will now be guaranteed 10 hours each week of instructional aide time. In addition, classrooms with more than 20 students enrolled for the full day will receive remediation funds for each student over 20. Those dollars can be applied toward additional classroom aide support beyond 10 hours per week or other purposes, like equipment or materials, as defined in the school district's agreement with its teachers union.
The district estimates that the additional remediation could cost up to approximately $90,000, bringing the total cost of the changes to $428,000.
While parents will have the option to opt out of the longer day and pick their child up at lunch, some expressed concern that this would put their children at an educational disadvantage.
Jenny Nixon, the parent of an incoming kindergartner, said looking at the current Barron Park and Palo Verde kindergarten schedules, her daughter would miss literacy, math and science lessons in the afternoon if she were to opt out.
Longtime teacher Jill Dineen, who served on a district "think tank" group that considered different potential kindergarten models this spring, criticized the opt-out option and said it will mean "asking kindergarten teachers to make it an academic morning."
Board members who supported the proposal noted that full-day kindergarten is not a "silver bullet" to close the achievement gap, but is a needed change that will ultimately benefit all students. Vice President Terry Godfrey did, however, state that she supported McGee's earlier proposal and was "troubled" that small-group time seems less "prominent" in the new model.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell offered examples of neighboring districts who happily and successfully offer full-day kindergarten, including in Woodside and Menlo Park.
"As much as we may love what we have, it's not serving all our students," she said. "We have to do something different."
The board approved the funding for full-day kindergarten along with several other budget requests: high-school wellness center workers, breakfast for low-income elementary students, elementary reading specialists, staffing at the district office and the high school athletics programs.