Of Primary Concern

November 01, 1998 4 min read

To Edna Tapia, it’s the little things that make the Van Nuys Primary Center an attractive place to teach. At this all-kindergarten school in Van Nuys, California, playground equipment, water fountains, and chairs are all downsized for the 5-year-olds who play and learn here. And every classroom has a bathroom, something that’s no longer a given in the Los Angeles school district.

“I transferred here because of this opportunity,” says Tapia, a third-year teacher who worked in the San Bernardino district until this year.

Free-standing primary centers have pros and cons, experts agree.

Van Nuys is one of six such primary centers in the Los Angeles school system. Over the next 10 years, the district plans to open 18 more. But school officials’ decision to separate some kindergartners and other early-primary pupils from the larger elementary schools was not based just on how it would affect students and teachers. The district was out of room.

The 685,000-student district has a fast-growing elementary-age population, and a statewide K-3 class-size-reduction initiative is making the crunch for classroom space even worse. The primary centers, district officials say, will relieve crowding while saving on construction costs.

Though some observers question whether these arrangements best meet children’s needs, they could prove to be a model for schools nationwide that are pressed by booming student populations. “We’ve gone beyond putting portables in the playgrounds. Even that’s not working anymore,” said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Schools serving just the early-primary grades are not new. During the 1980s and early ‘90s, for example, the Denver school district split many of the city’s elementary schools in an effort to achieve racial balance. Some schools served K-2, while others served kinder- garten and grades 3-5. That plan, however, was not popular with parents, and the schools lost enrollment, says Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the district. When Denver’s court-ordered desegregation plan ended in 1995, the district reunited the grades into neighborhood elementary schools.

Los Angeles may be the only district using the approach on a large scale, says Joe Agron, editor in chief of American School & University, a publication that tracks the school- construction industry. The district’s first primary center opened in 1987. The centers, which are made of “relocatable” or portable buildings, are less expensive and faster to build than a traditional school, says Vicki Montez, an administrative coordinator in the district’s school- management-services office. For example, Van Nuys Primary Center-- built in three months--sits on less than an acre at what used to be a parking lot for the city’s department of water and power.

Los Angeles’ primary centers are an alternative to having children bused to less crowded schools, according to Montez. Though the centers weren’t conceived as a way to boost student achievement, school officials plan to keep an eye on test scores. “We know that children who are bused out are some of the lowest-performing in the district,” Montez says. “Hopefully, walking to schools in their own neighborhoods will solve some of that.”

Teachers at the Los Angeles centers contend that the children are better off in the smaller settings. The students also fare better without older kids around who intimidate them, they say.

For teachers and administrators, the centers offer the chance to work closely together and to avoid the grade-level competition common in traditional schools. Teachers can also try new methods specifically targeted at younger children. At the 300- student Maclay Primary Center, an L.A.-district school in the east San Fernando Valley town of Pacoima, classes are multiage, with students in grades K-2. It’s something that principal Giovanna Foschetti says probably would not have been tried in the K-6 school from which she came. “You can make a difference here,” she adds.

But the Los Angeles primary centers also have some drawbacks. For one, because the schools are smaller, there are fewer people around to handle administrative and other routine tasks, such as custodial work. “If something needs to be cleaned up, we do it,” Foschetti says.

The existing primary centers also lack libraries. Plans call for libraries in some of the Los Angeles district’s future primary centers, but for now, teachers have carved out reading corners in their classrooms. At Maclay, a storage area is being turned into a minilibrary, and at some centers, students walk to nearby elementary school libraries.

Another disadvantage is that teachers have no regular contact with colleagues from other grade levels--a problem that’s especially acute for the kindergarten-only schools.

Educators outside Los Angeles point to some other difficulties of separate schools for young students and their older peers. Such arrangements limit contact between siblings and make it difficult to arrange activities where younger students learn from older ones, according to Allan Vann, principal of James H. Boyd Intermediate School in Huntington, New York. Vann, writing in the September issue of Principal, discussed how cuts in state aid forced his district to restructure two elementary schools so that one housed grades 3-5 and one enrolled K-2 students.

Some experts also question whether it’s wise to add another transition into a child’s 13 years of school. “If you need to break kids up, it makes sense to design it around developmental needs,” says Barbara Willer, the spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington, D.C. “But I would lean toward keeping the group together.”

--Linda Jacobson