In Burbank, as enrollment contracts, kindergarten expands

The Columbia School District, facing falling enrollments, finds a full-day program actually saves money.

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Gisell Coria waits in line with her classmates at the start of full-day kindergarten in Burbank. The program expanded this year from a half-day version, in part to save money.

BURBANK -- The Friday morning lesson for Columbia Elementary School kindergartners was the same in each of the two classes.

From adjoining rooms, teachers Holly Hamilton and Susie Weaver helped their students practice fine-motor skills needed to learn to write, while following simple directions with a playful worksheet.

In each room, the young children were told to first write their names, then guide their No. 2 pencils over dotted lines to connect illustrations of butterflies to flowers.

"Do the very best you can," Hamilton said.

The school is marking the first year of a full-day kindergarten program in the district. The Columbia School District was able to switch from a half-day program to full day despite having fewer students enrolled than in previous years.

In fact, the lower enrollment number -- about 40 students as the school year started -- is the main reason the district had to reconsider its kindergarten schedule, before realizing a full-day program could actually save the district some money.

Enrollment has been declining in the Columbia School District, a trend apparent in many small, rural districts in the region. As the economy has slumped, residents appear to be leaving these towns to seek jobs in larger cities, or to find more affordable housing.

When Columbia Elementary Principal Ian Yale joined the district in 2004, his school enrolled about 416 students.

"Right now we have 319," he said.

As last year came to a close and plans began for a new year, the initial kindergarten figures were startling.

"We started the summer with 19, and had a heart-attack," Yale said about the incoming class.

The numbers eventually doubled, but are still below average. Yale worked with Hamilton, Weaver and Superintendent Lou Gates to brainstorm kindergarten options, and the full-day idea emerged.

Gates included an announcement of the switch to full-day kindergarten in a newsletter sent to families and community members in early September.

"At first it seemed counterintuitive to offer more to save resources, but it pencils out fiscally for this new school year," Gates wrote in the newsletter.

Hamilton and Weaver each have one class of students, with about 20 students in each room. The students are in the class from about 8 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., and the day includes a recess and lunch break.

While the program is all day, it is not five days a week. Students attend Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then have either Tuesday or Thursday off from school each week. Hamilton's class attends Tuesdays, and Weaver's students attend Thursdays.

The switch also works because Hamilton and Weaver work different hours. Hamilton is a full-time teacher, while Weaver teaches part-time. So Hamilton teaches Weaver's students when they attend Thursday.

Making the kindergarten lessons full-day cut the need for a noon bus route, which is where the savings come from. Last year, the school offered two morning classes and one afternoon class.

Although parents have the option to send their children for a half-day, so far families seem to be happy with the switch and are taking advantage of the full day.

"I feel it is a good change," said Roberto Figueroa, whose son Dean Alexander, 5, is in Hamilton's class. Figueroa's daughter Trinity was a kindergartner last year, so he and his wife, Ana, have had a chance to compare the different programs.

He said they welcomed the full-day offering.

"We were very happy," he said about learning of the switch.

"In the long run, it prepares them better for what is to come, which is a life of structure," he said.

Some parents prefer half-day programs because they feel a full day is too long and puts too many demands on the young children, who are typically 5 or 6 years old. But Hamilton and Weaver see it differently.

With a half-day program, the teachers were tasked with getting more academic work done in a shorter period of time -- leaving little time for play or socializing.

Kindergarten is indeed more rigorous than in past years, in part because of statewide and federal pressure to get all children reaching academic standards as early as possible.

"Before it was social skills and colors," Hamilton said about the kindergarten structure in past years. "Now, it's reading and math."

So things like the playhouses that are stocked with a play kitchen and toys in each of the classrooms didn't get much attention when children attended just three hours a day.

"I think there will be more now," Weaver said about getting to play and interact in the classroom. "(Before) we had to make sure they had their letters and sounds."

Hamilton agreed, saying she welcomed the switch for the socializing the children would now get.

"They need to learn to get along, and to share, but we didn't have time for that," Hamilton said. "Now we will."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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