The Butte Falls School District will expand its half-day kindergarten program to a full-day next school year, Superintendent Tim Sweeney said Tuesday.

The Butte Falls School District will expand its half-day kindergarten program to a full-day next school year, Superintendent Tim Sweeney said Tuesday.

The school system of about 170 pupils in rural northeast Jackson County will join about 80 other school districts in the state that offer full-day kindergarten as a way to boost reading and math skills early. The program won't cost anything, as Butte Falls is rearranging staff rather than adding any.

"It's just really a situation where our kids aren't reading at grade level," Sweeney said. "It's across the district. We want to do a better job of giving kids a stronger foundation at an earlier age."

The state funds only half-day kindergarten programs through its per-pupil funding formula. Local and state education officials, including state Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo, have been urging state lawmakers to provide full-day funding during a time when schools are under increasing pressure to have students reading even before the first grade. By third grade, students are expected pass standardized tests in reading, and all students will have to show proficiency at grade level by 2014 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"It would be nice if (the Oregon Department of Education) would fund full-day kindergarten, but we are moving forward without it because we think it's a best practice," Sweeney said.

Some schools such as Fort Vannoy Elementary School in the Three Rivers School District have expanded to full-day kindergarten despite the lack of funding because they've seen results from pilot programs.

For small schools, finding creative ways of staffing full-day kindergarten without spending additional money and without charging parents tuition has been easier than in larger school systems.

Districts such as Medford and Grants Pass provide full-day kindergarten only to the neediest pupils using federal funds designated to serve low-income students.

Other districts such as Ashland, Central Point and Phoenix-Talent have expanded kindergarten to three-fourths of a day.

None of the schools in Jackson or Josephine counties charge tuition for full-day kindergarten.

In Butte Falls, the kindergarten teacher had been teaching kindergartners in the morning and instructing second-graders in the afternoon in a blended first and second-grade class. Next year, first and second grades will be in separate classes, and the kindergarten teacher will teach only kindergartners. Instead, there will be a blended third- and fourth-grade class and a blended fifth- and sixth-grade class.

The kindergarten class, which has only about 10 pupils, will now run from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday instead of 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Kindergartners will get 90 minutes of reading instruction, broken up throughout the day. They now receive less than an hour of reading instruction.

The full day will also give the teacher more time to provide math and science instruction as well as some old-fashioned play, said Butte Falls kindergarten teacher Sara McNeil.

Sweeney said the schedule will be more helpful to parents, some who work 45 minutes away in larger towns such as Medford.

"We are up on the mountainside," Sweeney said. "For many families, daycare is a problem, so we're hoping this is a win-win for students and families."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.