All-day kindergarten benefits Marana students - Tucson Local Media: Import

All-day kindergarten benefits Marana students

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Posted: Tuesday, April 12, 2005 11:00 pm

April 6, 2005 - Tucked inside Building C on the campus of Butterfield Elementary School lies a familiar world where the alphabet decorates the walls, children's scribbled drawings are scattered about, and buckets filled with Elmer's glue, Crayola crayons and safety scissors rest on the tops of tables that rise slightly higher than the knees of an average adult.

This tiny world is where 22 children, most of them only 5 years old, spend six hours of their day in Claudia Jensen's all-day kindergarten class, learning the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. And, because they have the extra time, some table manners, too.

In the same time Jensen spends with her all-day class, from 8:55 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. Monday through Friday, conventional half-day kindergarten classes come and go, lasting only two and a half hours.

Butterfield is one of six schools in the Marana Unified School District with an all-day kindergarten class in session this year. The program is offered districtwide, but some schools are reporting problems coming up with funds to support it, and other schools simply don't have enough classroom space.

All-day kindergarten is an issue that has taken a front seat this year as Arizona lawmakers decide how to move forward with an $8.2 billion spending plan that addresses funding for such a prog ram.

The Republican-led Legislature recently approved a 2005-06 budget Republicans said kept the state within its fiscal limits, but didn't include Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano's plans to phase more funding for all-day kindergarten.

Napolitano, who has her heels dug in on the issue, vetoed the Republican-approved spending plan because it offered "a host of false choices" that needlessly pits teacher pay raises against expanding all-day kindergarten.

"In truth, we can pay our teachers better and offer more children all-day kindergarten," Napolitano wrote in her March 28 veto message.

Napolitano was able to persuade the Legislature last year to kick in initial funding for an all-day kindergarten program at 136 of the state's poorest schools. Her plan calls for phasing in additional funding at more schools over a five-year period.

The budget Napolitano presented in January expands voluntary all-day kindergarten so 10,000 more students can enter first grade ready to learn, Napolitano wrote to Republican legislators.

"The governor had a really good bill last year where we would phase in all-day kindergarten over five years and that would give schools a chance to arrange their facilities, and it addressed the children most needy," said Jensen, who serves as the Marana Education Association's political action chairwoman.

"I frankly don't think the governor is going to sign a budget that doesn't have all-day kindergarten in it," she said.

MEA leaders have made three trips to the state Capitol this year, lobbying in support of Napolitano's plan. Jensen has used her status as a kindergarten teacher as her secret weapon, even testifying before the Senate education committee in the fall.

On each trip, MEA has spoken to an average of seven or eight lawmakers, everywhere from the "friendly Southern Arizona people" to those lawmakers "who are very conservative and very against all-day kindergarten," Jensen said.

"Many people are under the misguided understanding that children would be required to go to school all day, and it's an optional program," she said.

Napolitano's plan last year successfully phased in funding for schools having more than 90 percent of their students who qualified for free and reduced price lunches. The next step of that plan calls for funding all-day kindergarten at those schools with more than 80 percent.

Estes Elementary School, with 78 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, would be the first Marana school to receive funding under the governor's plan, but that's likely to be a couple of years down the road.

A long day in Marana

The Marana Unified School District started its tuition-based, all-day kindergarten program about five years ago after a strong push from concerned teachers who spoke of its advantages. The cash-strapped district, without federal or state support for such a program, has managed to balance the cost on the backs of parents.

Parents who can afford it pay $10.50 a day, or $1,869 a year, for their child's extra schooling. And for some, it's an alternative to sticking their child in day care. The cost goes directly toward funding a teacher's salary, an aide's pay, and a small budget for classroom supplies.

Jensen, who has been at Butterfield for 17 years, teaching kindergarten for nine, is teaching her third all-day class this year. She said that by the time students get to first grade more is expected of them than in years past.

"Our children are expected to be able to read when they leave kindergarten. They now have to be able to write lists of words and sentences, and do what we call decoding, sounding out words in books," Jensen said.

Unless they come from a home where parents are able to dedicate the time to help them learn, students need the extra half-day in school, she said.

"Half-day teachers really struggle with the students who come in without that background to get them up to speed by first grade," she said.

The students in Jensen's class count for 22 of the 109 students enrolled in the district's all-day kindergarten program at Butterfield, Coyote Trail, Desert Winds, DeGrazia, Quail Run and Thornydale elementary schools.

The extra time Jensen has in her school day lets her teach and reinforce the same lessons that other kindergarten teachers must cram into two and a half hours. Plus, she gets to make it fun.

It's only 10 minutes past 9 a.m. on a Thursday, and already Jensen's class is alive with the sound of music. She strums a six-string acoustic guitar while the children, sitting with legs crossed in a carpeted corner of the room, sing along to "This Land is my Land."

At 9:20 a.m., the children put their math skills to the test by figuring out how many more students ordered pizza than chicken nuggets for lunch. The answer: five.

Students then count their way up to 144 by twos just before breaking to sing "The Calendar Song" in multiple languages.

"They have extra play time in the morning, time to write in journals, they go to lunch, they have rest time and they do center activities in the afternoon," Jensen said.

Five-year-old Brian McDade echoes his peers when he says he enjoys the full day at school.

"I keep my card on green every day," says Brian, referring to Jensen's color-coded award system in which green means Brian is on his best behavior.

At 10:30 a.m., the children break into small groups and participate in reading, writing, math, handwriting and computer skill sessions at various work stations.

"They're doing a mini-lesson each day and they rotate over those," Jensen said. "We take an hour doing that whereas half-day teachers have 20 to 25 minutes."

At 1 p.m., the children in Jensen's class enjoy a half-hour nap during which even the most energetic of the bunch pass right out. A couple of hours later, their day comes to an end.

All-day kindergarten classes are offered at any school throughout the district based on two factors: There must be enough interest (at least 20 students signed up) and the school must have a classroom available.

Twin Peaks Elementary School, which has offered all-day kindergarten two of the past three years, was unable to offer the program this year because of a lack of classroom space despite interest from parents. Meanwhile, Estes Elementary School parents say they're also interested but can't afford the costs.

Jensen said Butterfield is unique because it doesn't worry about having enough parents who can afford the program. Last year, more than 40 parents signed up to have their children attend all-day kindergarten, and there's still a waiting list.

The deadline to register for all-day kindergarten for the 2005-06 school year is April 30. Parents interested should call their local elementary school's main office for additional information.

A lesser-privileged community

Debbie Baker, a kindergarten teacher at Estes, led the effort that convinced the district to start its tuition-based, all-day kindergarten program in 2000-01. She previously taught the only all-day kindergarten program in the district with the help of federal funding.

The amount of time teachers have in a half-day setting to teach and reinforce required lessons is unreasonable, though Arizona state standards for kindergarten students are attainable given proper time, Baker said.

"We just can't do it in two and a half hours anymore," she said. "It's critical that students have more than two and a half hours in a day in order for those skills to be taught and mastered in the kindergarten year."

Ironically, Baker's school has been unable to support all-day kindergarten since the switch to a tuition-based program, because parents in the Estes community just don't have the money. And rules have changed to no longer allow using federal money for all-day kindergarten, she said.

"In order to get it in more schools, we chose to implement a tuition-based program," she said. "But in doing that, we realized it was probably going to impact our community, and we haven't been able to find an alternative source of funding since. The last couple of years that we really tried hard, we were not able to use (federal) money."

But just because they can't afford it doesn't mean parents of Estes kindergartners aren't hungry for an all-day program. School surveys show that close to 100 percent of Estes parents would choose to have their children in an all-day kindergarten program if there was funding for it, Baker said.

"There's a huge demand," she said. "I have very high hopes that the state is going to recognize the need and continue to fund the program for more children."

Liz Ramirez, a mother of three Estes students, said all of her children have been in Baker's half-day kindergarten class, but she wishes she and other parents could afford the $10.50 per day.

"She is an awesome teacher, and I would have loved them to spend more time with her during the day," Ramirez said. "But financially I wasn't able to do that and I don't know many people in Marana that could."

Given that there are 178 days in a school year, the program costs parents about $1,869 a year.

Ramirez's 6-year-old Jaime is in Baker's half-day class, while 8-year-old Jesus and 11-year-old Marcos are now in second and fifth grades, respectively. All three children have done very well in school, Ramirez said, but they could have benefited from an all-day program.

"At that age, learning is a big portion of their life," she said. "They need to start early and there's only so much you can put into a child's mind in two and a half hours."

A tale of two communities

The staggering differences between Estes and Butterfield reflect the underlying concern that has led many to advocate for increased funding. The governor's funding proposal would be a boost to schools like Estes, which has parents who struggle to find enough support to fund the all-day program with their own dollars.

Rocco Sugameli, who became principal at Estes this year and previously served as principal at Butterfield for 11 years, said he's witnessed the success of an all-day program at his former school, and wants to bring that same option to a lesser-privileged Estes.

"It's a fundamental difference in where I was to where I am now," he said. "The bottom line is we have diverse populations in our district. But is it fair that some communities can afford it and some can't? The answer is no."

Sugameli said he's working hard to get the district to help fund all-day kindergarten at schools like Estes, where parents are hard-pressed to find 20 others who could afford the thousands it costs to pay for their child's all-day education.

"Certainly it would be a great help in our Estes community to ready our kids to enter first grade," he said. "We would certainly like them to be starting off their school career closer to benchmark than they are. All-day kindergarten is one piece of the puzzle."

If funds were available, Sugameli said he's certain the district would support a reform to the current system and fund all-day kindergarten at schools like Estes.

"Everybody I have spoken with at the district level is in support," he said.

But, until there's more funding from the state, that's probably the way it's going to have to be, Sugameli said. This issue is one Sugameli said he expects incoming Superintendent Denny Dearden to address when he assumes duties July 1.

"We have the plan. We're ready to roll with it as soon as we can find a way to fund it," Sugameli said. "I have asked (the district) for additional staffing for that purpose, but I also understand we're dealing with a state that very much underfunds education."

Tim Taylor, a parent of two Butterfield students, is fortunate to have had his children attend all-day kindergarten. In fact, he felt so fortunate that he testified before the Senate education committee last fall on the benefits of all-day kindergarten.

His son Bryce is one of the youngest students in Jensen's kindergarten class, and his daughter Lyndsey went through Jensen's all-day class a few years ago and is now excelling in third grade and enjoys reading.

"I think all-day kindergarten built that positive foundation for wanting to learn," Taylor said. "If we can build that foundation as a youngster and they want to learn and go to school, they're going to carry that on into their adult life."

Taylor said he checked out five kindergarten classes, at everything from parochial schools to public schools, before deciding that Butterfield's program would give his children the best possible education.

"In half-day kindergarten, the kids are just rushed. They come in, barely get established, they learn for a short period of time and then it's pretty much time to grab a snack and go home," he said. "With all-day kindergarten, they get a chance to finish a project, sit down and learn something and absorb it because they have a longer time."

Taylor said his son Bryce was only 4 when he started kindergarten this year, but the all-day program has managed to bring him up to speed with his peers.

"We were hesitant sending him into the school so young. And now he's just cranking along really good," Taylor said. "I definitely think the $10.50 is worth it. I look at it as kind of a small investment toward their future."

The differences between all-day and half-day kindergarten may sound staggering, but Baker has her own simple way of putting it.

"The biggest difference is you never have to tell your half-day kids to 'hurry up.' Everything is very rushed in order to try to meet goals and I would love to remove those two words from my vocabulary."

Registration deadline

The deadline to register for all-day kindergarten for the 2005-06 school year is April 30. Parents interested should call their local elementary school's main office for additional information.

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