Full-day kindergarten alarms some parents

Posted: Monday, June 16, 2003

When kindergartner Ryan Benson came home after school, he was too tired to stay awake, says his mom, Kymm Benson.

Benson, other parents and many elementary teachers are concerned about a Juneau School District proposal to offer a longer kindergarten day next year.

Critics say a full-day program will tire out the children. And teachers won't offer the popular mixed classes of kindergartners and first-graders if they have kindergartners all day, parents fear.

Some parents say their kindergartners would benefit from the longer day.

"The extra time with his peers will really help his progress," one anonymous parent commented in a school district survey.

"This is a good idea," another parent said. Kindergartners will "learn responsibility sooner with this program."

The school district wants to save money by eliminating the early afternoon buses for kindergartners. But administrators also say a full-day kindergarten can help students academically, especially those from families that are low-income or have limited English skills.

"They are the students we are not doing as well with," said Charla Wright, the district's instructional services coordinator. "The recommendation was based on that population of students."

Who wants what?

• The Juneau School District wants to save about $140,000 by eliminating afternoon buses for kindergartners, who now leave school 90 minutes earlier than other elementary students. The district is trying to close a $1.6 million gap in next school year's $39 million budget. Some teachers have suggested the district should save money instead by running fewer but longer bus routes in general, or by looking for cuts in administration.

• Juneau enrolls 360 kindergartners, about half of whom take the early bus home. A third go to the district's after-school program, RALLY, and the rest go home or to other day care.

• A little more than half of 290 elementary-school parents who responded to a school district survey opposed full-day kindergarten. About 45 percent favored it. More dramatically, 103 of 120 surveyed teachers and other school staff opposed it.

The state doesn't require children to attend kindergarten.

The administration has recommended that the School Board eliminate the early buses and offer parents of kindergartners a choice of the current 4 1/2-hours of class time or a full 6-hour day of class time. Students also have a half-hour lunch.

The School Board may take up the issue Tuesday at its regular meeting, which starts at 6 p.m.

The school district didn't want to eliminate the kindergarten buses and offer only the current schedule, because parents who couldn't pick up their children might not enroll them in kindergarten, said Jean Ann Alter, a temporary administrator working on the proposal.

Many teachers oppose a full day for kindergartners, and they say it would be unfair and disruptive to have some kids leave class early.

"The ones who leave early will come back refreshed. The ones who stay all day will get a negative attitude," said Riverbend Elementary teacher Mimi Walker.

Some kindergarten teachers have said they would lose the opportunity in the last 90 minutes of the day to help first-graders or to work with small groups of kindergartners who are asked to stay after class.

But Wright said that every budget decision has trade-offs. Saving money by ending the kindergarten buses, for example, could make it possible to retain full-time teachers of English as a second language.

Some teachers of combined kindergarten and first-grade said they wouldn't teach such classes next year if kindergartners attended all day. The teachers said they wouldn't be able to work with the first-graders alone in the last 90 minutes of the day.

"I was really looking forward to that for my son," said Benson, whose son was in a kindergarten-first grade class at Riverbend Elementary this past school year. "He does much better in a smaller setting."

Wright said the district has many multi-age classes in which all the students stay all day.

But Mary McBride, who teaches a kindergarten-first grade class at Riverbend, said first-graders work on academic skills such as reading, writing, spelling and math in the last 90 minutes of the day.

"If we have the kindergartners there all day, you couldn't do the academics with the first-graders," she said.

Jodi VanKirk, who has had three children in kindergarten-first grade classes, said children learn more and retain their interest better in such classes. And they're more comfortable having the same teacher for two years in a row.

She values the time teachers can spend with first-graders after the kindergartners have gone home.

"When you have kindergartners for that length of time (the full day), you can't keep up the academic pace," VanKirk said. "You'd have first-graders who are bored."

Teachers and some parents also said kindergartners, who are 5, are too young to be in school all day.

"Most kids who are starting kindergarten are not physically able to go a full day without becoming tired," said parent Stephanie Allison. Her oldest son just finished kindergarten.

"He came home exhausted every day. I can't imagine what they would do with another hour and a half in school," Allison said.

"I don't think there would be a lot of academics going on in the last one and a half hours. It's essentially turning it into a baby-sitting service, and not necessarily a free one," she said.

The school district said the proposal would save transportation money and not add to other costs. But Allison said the costs would be in teacher burnout, more wear on equipment, more supplies and possibly a passed-on cost to parents who use RALLY.

RALLY's kindergarten program accounts for about 15 percent of RALLY's revenue, according to the school district. RALLY is funded largely by parent fees at a break-even rate.

If some kindergartners pull out of RALLY because they're in class, other RALLY users might have to make up the lost revenue with higher fees, the district has said.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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