School Board Takes A Breath

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That’s it: Everyone take a breath.

Good. Good. Hold it. Take another.

OK. Everybody calm? Let’s think this through.

The superintendent’s leaving — thanks to a breakdown in his relationship with the school board. Everything’s in an uproar — dangling projects everywhere. We’re adrift on a stormy sea, water sloshing over the gunnels.

What do we do! What do we do?

Well, for starters let’s not throw the lifeboats overboard to lighten the load. Let’s not make things worse just for the sake of doing something.

So maybe it’s a good thing the Payson School Board resolutely refuses to make a decision on what to do about the unexpected overcrowding at Payson Elementary School, which stems in part from the board’s decision to restore full-day kindergarten — despite the failure of the Legislature to support our schools.

As near as anyone can tell, the decision this year to go to all-day kindergarten may account for an unexpected surge of kindergartners and first-graders this year. An extra 100 students in those grades helped produce the first district enrollment increase in years.

Except now Payson Elementary School is bursting at the seams and Julia Randall Elementary is nearly full up. Fortunately, the district still has extra classrooms at the middle school and high school.

The board’s refusal to accept Superintendent Ron Hitchcock’s recommendation to spend $1 million building classrooms at PES contributed to the breakdown in communication and trust that prompted him to resign. The board failed to fully understand and support the reforms Hitchcock introduced in such a rush — and Hitchcock failed to sell them on his plan or anticipate their objections.

The easy way to solve the problem would be to abandon all-day kindergarten — as the state legislature so shamefully did during the state budget crisis.

We believe that would be a mistake.

Lots of evidence supports the value of all-day kindergarten. Consider some of the research findings reported on a fact sheet compiled by Strategies for Children, a group that supports early education.

— Children in all-day programs get 50 percent more instruction time, which allows them to spend 30 percent more time on reading and 46 percent more time on math.

— A study of 17,000 children in Philadelphia found that all-day kindergarten significantly reduced the number of children held back by third grade. Please note, new Arizona standards will soon require schools to hold back children reading below grade level in the third grade.

— A study in New Mexico in a school district where the average kindergartener started 22 months below grade level found that in a half-day program students gained 5.6 months while in a full-day program they gained 16 months.

— An intensive and expensive all-day kindergarten program in Maryland helped low-income students catch up with their higher-performing peers, according to a study described on the National Institute for Early Education Web site. The study involved 16,000 students and documented achievement gains across the board — with the biggest gains among low-income students. Please note: About two-thirds of Payson students qualify for free and reduced lunches based on family income.

Granted, other studies have raised red flags about rushing headlong into all-day kindergarten classes. For instance, the RAND Corporation did a study that concluded that the initial gains reported for students in all-day kindergarten classes tended to fade by the third grade.

Moreover, studies suggest the academic gains seem greatest for low-income students, but less significant for higher income students with better-educated parents. Children from homes where they have books and adults with time to read to them and talk to them enter school with much better language and reading skills. Reading aloud, frequent adult-child conversations and parental encouragement will do far more to prepare children for school than all-day kindergarten or even good preschools.

However, it’s also clear all-day kindergarten benefits working families struggling to find adequate child care and give their kids the boost they need to complete.

So we’re glad that the school board resisted the temptation to make a snap decision to eliminate all-day kindergarten to solve the short-term crowding problem.

Instead, we would join in the chorus calling for the district to come up with a workable, long-term, student-focused plan. Ample research has demonstrated the value of small classrooms in the elementary school grades, all-day kindergarten and a shift to a K-8 model. The district should explore the costs and benefits of those school models before plunging forward with an improvised effort.

That probably means playing for time, getting by until we have another superintendent in place — and making sure the district knows what it’s doing before asking the voters to approve another school override.

But for now, we suppose we’ll settle for taking a deep breath — and not throwing the lifeboats overboard.

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