It's About Time

Fort Bend is putting an end to racing teachers and kids through half-day kindergarten. But too many other districts still haven't wised up.

In the last school year, Zoe Bubier was devastated when she got the news that she wouldn't be able to go to kindergarten -- she'd missed the cutoff birth date.

A year later, older and wiser, this seasoned veteran of day care finally got her big moment. But because she's in the Conroe Independent School District, she goes half a day. So school hasn't been, well, quite the experience she and her mother had hoped it would be.

"She really likes school," Kirsten Bubier says. "It's just that she could benefit a whole lot more if she was in for a full day."

With two working parents, a typical Zoe day means a morning race to day care followed by afternoon school and then back to day care. "They've played all morning. They've been rushed through lunch and rushed on a bus and then they get there where it's 'Oh, you want me to behave now?' " her mother says.

A typical kindergarten school day lasts less than three hours. It either starts in the morning and ends by 11 or begins at noon with kids out for pickup at 2:45. And there's a lot of ground to cover in that time.

Kids aren't the only ones who feel a bit rushed in these half-day classes, which still exist in several Houston-area districts. Teachers and aides report the same thing, the feeling that they must hit all their marks all the time and keep moving or they'll get too far behind. And for those intimate little conversations when someone wants to talk about a new puppy or a new baby sister, well, some of those moments get fast-forwarded through in a way educators never wanted to happen.

Jan Randolph teaches kindergarten at Oyster Creek Elementary in the Fort Bend Independent School District, which also has half-day kindergarten. For years, she taught first grade and was a teaching specialist assisting teachers. When she came back to teaching, she went to kindergarten.

She loves teaching but feels at a disadvantage in half-days. Randolph has 41 students instead of 22 -- the state-set maximum elementary class size -- which means 41 parent conferences at a time. Even though the state does not mandate full-day kindergarten -- embarrassingly enough, Texas doesn't mandate kindergarten at all -- it does set a curriculum for kindergarten students. And the half-day curriculum is not one bit different from the full-day. "You can see that's just not realistic," she says.

Actually, the leaders of the Fort Bend schools have come to agree with Randolph. The school board recently voted that starting next fall, all of its kindergarten classes will be full-day. They could feel pretty secure of public support -- an October survey showed that 81 percent of the 8,000 parents who responded favored full-day kindergarten. And teachers had been asking for it for years.

It will mean adding more than 100 teachers. It will mean some older elementary students will be pushed out into portables until more classrooms are built. It will cost the district some money, and FBISD expects to go in the hole on the program at the beginning.

But Fort Bend finally went ahead, says Susan Wey, Area II superintendent, because: "We knew it was right for the kids. We knew we had parent backing, and we knew we'd be able to find the teachers. It was just how much this was going to cost us."

It is right for the kids, and it is something all Texas public school districts ought to be doing immediately. Humble ISD went to full-day after parental interest dwindled to the point where there were almost no half-day classes left. Katy ISD went to full-day last fall. At the end of this month, Alief ISD will consider it. In fact, throughout the state, about 85 percent of all public school districts offer full-day kindergarten. But others, such as Conroe, Friendswood and Pearland, are at half-day with no discernable plans to change.

Opposition usually comes in two forms: emotional and financial. Some people feel a full day of kindergarten is just too much for five-year-olds. They're ignoring the fact that many of these children have already been in a structured day-care setting or are good readers, thanks to a stay-at-home parent. The flip side is the kids who know next to nothing, some of whom don't speak English well. Why would you want to spend less time playing catch-up with them?

Yes, it will cost taxpayers more money. It means reallocating space and finding new teachers and redrawing bus routes. Fort Bend took a hard look at its finances and realized: a) it would about double its stipend from the state for students in full-day kindergarten, and b) it will probably save some money by not making midday bus runs ferrying five-year-olds in and out. Before that realization, Fort Bend had bought into the defenses frequently used by area districts: that they are growing too fast all over to think about this, and that full-day kindergarten would be great, but it's a luxury they can't afford.

It isn't a luxury. It's essential. What districts can't afford is to keep shortchanging kids.

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