California districts can renovate, build kindergarten classrooms with help from new funding

August 1, 2018

Students in the hallway at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif.

Acting on the notion that full-day early education programs are more effective than half-day ones, in recent years the California Legislature has been nudging school districts to offer full-day kindergarten to all its students. But some districts have run into an obstacle: They don’t have the classroom space they would need to expand the length of time children are in the classroom.

So this year the Legislature has included $100 million in the budget to help districts convert their part-day kindergarten programs into full-day programs. The funds will help school districts that are struggling financially and are located in low-income communities. The money will also help districts that need to add classrooms to accommodate increasing kindergarten enrollment. Schools can use the funding to pay design and construction costs, including landscaping and electric upgrades.

Behind that effort is research that indicates full-day kindergarten programs can help students improve their reading and math skills, if programs are of high quality, according to a 2017 EdSource report.

While substantially more districts are providing full-time kindergarten programs than have previously, California lags behind other states, according to the EdSource report. The report, which cites data from the California Department of Education, states that 70.5 percent of California schools offered full-day kindergarten as of March 2017. In 2001, only 11 percent of kindergartners were enrolled in full-day programs, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a research organization focused on statewide issues.

The $100 million in one-time funding for kindergarten facilities is intended for full-day programs that are more than four hours long. Part-day or half-day kindergarten programs are four hours or less. The funding requires that districts provide a 40 percent local match for grants to renovate existing facilities and a 60 percent match for new construction. The state’s Office of Public School Construction, which administers school facilities programs, will oversee the grant program.

That office will create and review applications before making recommendations to the State Allocation Board, which is in charge of distributing funds to school districts. No deadline has been set for grant applications, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance.

Schools that offer half-day kindergarten programs typically provide morning and afternoon sessions. These classes often take place in the same room, so in order to extend the kindergarten day, those schools would have to find the space to accommodate a larger number of students during a longer day.

Although schools that receive grants are required to provide matching funds, there will be an exemption for districts that meet the criteria for “financial hardship.” Financial hardship is not clearly defined, but districts will be given priority under two categories: location in a low-income community with limited or no funds to match costs or a large number of students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

In recent years, full-day kindergarten has emerged as a legislative priority. In the 2016 Assembly Blueprint for Responsible Budget Priorities, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, included “implementing all-day kindergarten across California,” as one of six areas of focus. The 2017 blueprint more specifically focuses on expansion of early education programs for all 4-year-olds, including child care programs.

While lack of facilities is certainly an obstacle, it’s difficult to pinpoint how widespread a barrier it is to expanding to full-day kindergarten, said Martha Alvarez, an early education specialist for the Association of California School Administrators, which represents superintendents and other school administrators. For some districts, expansion of kindergarten classes raises staffing concerns since it can require districts to hire new teachers and provide them with additional training.

Another deterrent is that California provides districts with the same amount of funding for part-day and full-day programs, which Alvarez and others say can discourage expansion. Whether or not teachers in California are paid the same for half-day and full-day programs likely depends on the district, said Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Department of Education. While the department tracks teacher salaries by district, Roark said, it does not track differences in pay based on full-time programs compared to half-day programs.

Some districts, like Clovis Unified, a district in California’s Central Valley, want to expand but don’t have the space. The district has a mix of half-day and full-day programs. Norm Anderson, associate superintendent of school leadership for Clovis Unified said that to provide more full-day kindergarten programs the district would have to build new classrooms and those require specific renovations, such as restrooms. The state requires that all kindergartners have access to bathrooms in the classroom or in the kindergarten classroom area.

At Clovis Unified, an increase in student enrollment and an influx of special education students has made expansion to full-day programs more difficult, district officials said. Steve Ward, legislative analyst for Clovis Unified, said that if the district continues to grow it will need to open at least six new classrooms every year for the next five years to keep pace with expanding programs and an increase in its special education student population.

State investment in facilities is critical, Alvarez said, especially for districts that cannot rely on other means of funding, such as a local bond measure, that can be used to build new schools.

“I believe districts will benefit but the big question is how many of them will,” said Alvarez about the new facilities funding in the state budget. “Districts are facing a lot of financial challenges and for them to even think about a retrofit (renovation) project is difficult. It’s not like districts just have money lying around. They might have reserve funding but need it for computers or something else. There are other cost pressures and needs.”

In the Pittsburg Unified School District, about 30 miles east of Oakland, Deputy Superintendent Enrique Palacios said the district has already demolished and rebuilt several schools and has plans to renovate and build more facilities. Unlike some districts in California, Palacios said, enrollment is increasing. The district currently has only part-day kindergarten programs at its eight elementary schools, but would like to expand to full-day and add the facilities to accommodate more students, he said.

Palacios said the district is fortunate that since 2004 voters have approved local bond measures that have covered the cost of new construction. Of its 13 K-12 schools, six are newly constructed and the district plans to replace four temporary elementary school buildings with permanent ones and, eventually, to expand to full-day kindergarten, he said.

In order to expand, the district would need to hire teachers and that would be a challenge, given the teacher shortage and competitive market, he said. Teachers would also need to agree that a full-day program would be beneficial to kindergartners, Palacios said. The education services division would also need to be involved to help develop a full-day program. “Without facilities we cannot do anything about expansion but in some respect it is the easiest (issue) to address and fix,” he said.

In some larger districts, including San Diego Unified, Fresno Unified and Pasadena Unified, full-day kindergarten programs are already in place and a lack of facilities has not been a barrier to expanding programs, officials said. In other districts, such as Long Beach Unified, there are no plans to implement full-day kindergarten programs, according to Chris Eftychiou, a spokesman for the district.

“It’s not a facilities issue for us…that’s been the preference of our kindergarten teachers here, and we have respected that preference,” he said. On occasion, some kindergartners stay for a full day, but it’s usually a smaller group of students so teachers can focus on one-on-one help, he said.

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