As five of the seven kindergarten teachers from Payson Unified School District (PUSD) faced the school board, member Jim Quinlan quipped, “Are you going to lead us in a song?”
Everyone giggled, the teachers included, but then the discussion turned serious as the teachers urged the board not to solve the overcrowding crisis at Payson Elementary School (PES) by eliminating all-day kindergarten.
“I have never taught half day, especially with all the new national standards,” said Jane Pond, a new kindergarten teacher to PUSD. “You can’t ask us to do a job we can’t do.”
This is the first year PUSD has offered all-day kindergarten since the Legislature cut funding to schools. The results have been spectacular, said the teachers.
Prior to this school year, PUSD had faced five years of declining enrollment. Now numbers show that enrollment is increasing, primarily in kindergarten and first grade.
At the same time it eliminated state funding for all-day kindergarten, the state Legislature adopted a mass of unfunded national and state standards that rolled out this year.
The elementary school teachers have felt the most pressure from the reforms, which not only link teacher pay to student scores, but require schools to hold back third-graders who haven’t mastered reading.
“If what you want to be is competitive and to prepare our students with rigor, then we need all-day kindergarten,” said MaryAnn Runzo, a longtime reading specialist and kindergarten teacher. “If you take that away, you will be putting out a fire with a water bottle.”
The board faces a tough decision regarding overcrowding at PES.
Superintendent Ron Hitchcock recommended using $1.2 million from the sale of Frontier Elementary School to build four classrooms. The board nixed the idea, insisting it wanted a long-term solution before committing the $1.2 million.
Parents, teachers and community members at a Dec. 6 meeting seemed to agree that the district needed a long-term plan before using up the one-time stash of cash from selling Frontier.
The board had asked principals Rob Varner, Asa Hall and Will Dunman to meet and present plans to the board before the Thanksgiving break.
The plan Hitchcock had pushed would move fifth grade students to the middle school and second grade students to Julia Randall Elementary, leaving just kindergartners and first-graders at PES. But the plan drew more complaints than support at the public session.
“You need to find a long-term solution,” said parent Tiffany Herald, “There are parents and teachers out here to help. Make the best decision for students.”
Varner had tapped Herald to sit on the scheduling committee to create a school day that separated the fifth- and sixth-graders from the seventh- and eighth-graders.
Parent Nathan Morris stood to simply say, “Parents are really concerned about this.”
Grandparent of an elementary student Kathy Noon said she was willing to help find a solution.
Former middle school math teacher turned fifth grade teacher Diana Fletcher said knowing both grade levels as she does, she does not wish to see the younger students with the older middle school students.
“I have watched innocent children change,” she said, “It’s not an appropriate place (middle school) for a fifth-grader. During the school day we cannot isolate them from the older students.”
Even former principal of PES, now fifth grade teacher Donna Haught, weighed in.
“Just three years ago, the first modification closed FES (Frontier). Next we reconfigured schools,” she said. “Teachers and children are just now getting used to all of the changes. To propose another monumental change ... we need to review the cost of moving teachers, students ... (and) when fifth and sixth grade students moved to middle school academic levels decline and emotional issues rise.”
Varner agreed with the parents and staff that pleaded for a long-term plan.
“To be honest with you, with Thanksgiving, we did not have time to look at everything,” he said. “I still have questions I need to get answered. There is no reason why we don’t take a few months to research how many four- and five-year-olds we have coming in next year ...”
PES principal Asa Hall said asking the three principals to come up with a consensus was too difficult. “We three will not be on the same page,” he said. “To come up with the best option from all three of us, that will never happen (because) we are not superintendents.”
Quinlan agreed the board should not rush into any decisions.
Director of technology Joni de Szendeffy reminded the board that moving two second grade classrooms to JRE would release pressure on the overcrowding in the short term so the district can research a long-term solution.
The districts four school sites technically have enough classrooms for all the district’s students, but they’re crowded at the elementary school level and underutilized in the middle school and high school.
At the end of the discussion, Rory Huff suggested tabling the issue until the Jan. 27 meeting.
The board agreed.
“When people come out, it really shows their passion,” said board president Barbara Underwood. “We are working to make the best decisions for our district.”