Early-Grade Centers Ease Space Woes

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To Edna Tapia, it's the little things that make the Van Nuys Primary Center an attractive place to teach.

Classroom walls at this all-kindergarten school are made from the same material used to make bulletin boards, allowing teachers like her the freedom to tack artwork anywhere.

And every classroom has a bathroom, something that, while typical, is no longer a given in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"I transferred here because of this opportunity," said Ms. Tapia, a third-year teacher who worked in the San Bernardino school district until this school year.

Playground equipment, water fountains, and chairs at this 264-student school are all meant specifically for 5-year-olds, and there are no older children to get in the way.

But Los Angeles 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. They were out of room.

The 685,000-student district has a fast-growing elementary school population, and there is a statewide K-3 class-size-reduction initiative under way. The district's six primary centers are part of a plan to relieve crowding, while saving on construction costs.

Such a move could prove a model for schools nationwide that are pressed by ever-growing student populations. But some observers question whether these arrangements best meet children's social and educational needs.

The district's first primary center, Bellevue, opened in 1987, and three others followed over the years. But just this year, the district opened two additional centers. The district, which is working with the city of Los Angeles to find available sites, plans to open an additional 18 primary centers over the next 10 years.

The centers, which are made of "relocatable" or portable buildings, are less expensive to build and go up faster than a traditional elementary school, said Vicki Montez, an administrative coordinator in the district's school-management-services office. For example, Van Nuys Primary Center is on less than an acre at what used to be a parking lot for the city's department of water and power. And it was built in only three months.

The K-2 Maclay Primary Center--in the east San Fernando Valley town of Pacoima--was built adjacent to a middle school on property already owned by the district.

The Burbank Unified School District, north of Los Angeles, opened an all-kindergarten school in the 1995-96 school year to relieve crowding at Miller Elementary School. That school was built to hold 530 students, but is now serving more than 900.

Andrea Canady, the district's director of elementary education, said officials wanted to move the 5th graders into a middle school, but parents overwhelmingly supported moving the kindergartners instead because those children tend to be isolated from the rest of the grades anyway.

Setting a Trend

While schools serving just the early-primary grades are not new, some overcrowded districts are now viewing this configuration as a way to free up much-needed classroom space.

"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.

In Broward County, Fla., for example, charter schools serving the early grades are providing a little relief in that 229,000-student district.

But Los Angeles may be the only district using the approach on such a large scale, said Joe Agron, the editor in chief of American School & University, a trade publication that tracks the school construction industry. He added that this solution to crowding is more likely to be tried in the South and on the West Coast because of a greater availability of land.

In the past, schools have been reconfigured for reasons other than crowding. During the 1980s and early 1990s, 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 kindergarten and grades 3-5. That plan, however, was not popular with parents, and the schools lost enrollment, said Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the district.

Since the district's court-ordered desegregation plan ended in 1995, the district has reunited the grades into neighborhood elementary schools.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Los Angeles' primary centers, Ms. Montez said, are an alternative to having children bused to less crowded schools throughout the district.

And while the centers weren't directly intended to raise student achievement, school officials plan to take a closer look at test scores of the pupils served by such schools, Ms. Montez said.

"We know that children who are bused out are some of the lowest-performing in the district," she said. "Hopefully, walking to schools in their own neighborhoods will solve some of that."

The centers also give teachers and administrators the chance to work more closely. Candida Fernandez-Ghoneim, the principal at Van Nuys Primary Center, said her faculty is more willing to share information and materials. And Ms. Tapia added that in a single-grade school, there's no feeling of competition between grade levels, something that can happen in a regular school.

Teachers can also try new methods specifically targeted to younger children. For example, the 300-student Maclay Primary Center is a multi-age school, meaning that all classes include students in grades K-2.

It's a program that Principal Giovanna Foschetti said probably would not have been tried in the K-6 school she came from.

"You can make a difference here," she said.

But operating the primary centers also has disadvantages. For one, fewer people are around to handle administrative and other routine tasks at the school, such as custodial work.

"If something needs to be cleaned up, we do it," Ms. Foschetti said.

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. And at Maclay, a storage area is being turned into a mini-library.

In some cases, students continue to use the elementary school libraries if they are within walking distance.

Another disadvantage is that teachers, especially those in the kindergarten-only schools, have no regular contact with colleagues from other grade levels.

Contact between siblings and older and younger students also is limited when younger pupils are at a separate school, according to Allan S. Vann, the principal of James H. Boyd Intermediate School in Huntington, N.Y., where six years ago two elementary schools were changed into one for K-2 and one for grades 3-5 because of cuts in state aid.

Activities such as joint reading by older and younger children are also limited, Mr. Vann wrote in last month's issue of Principal, a journal published by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals.

K-5 Schools Still Needed

Socially and emotionally, teachers at the Los Angeles primary centers say, the children are better off in those smaller settings because they are not intimidated by older students. But some experts 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," said Barbara Willer, the spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington. "But I would lean toward keeping the group together."

While the primary-center initiative in Los Angeles is one solution to the district's crowding problems, it hasn't solved them by itself. Every center also operates on a year-round, multitrack schedule, allowing the schools to serve more children than they could on a normal school calendar.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 1, 14

Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as Early-Grade Centers Ease Space Woes
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