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Full-day kindergarten hit by Medford budget axe

Full-day kindergarten at seven low-income Medford elementary schools will end next year, the latest casualty of budget cuts and sanctions by the federal government for failure to meet benchmarks in the No Child Left Behind Act.

"We can no longer afford to pay the bill for full-day kindergarten," said Rich Miles, Medford schools elementary education director.

The Medford School District has paid about $900,000 per year to extend kindergarten to a full day at Howard, Jackson, Jefferson, Oak Grove, Roosevelt, Washington and Wilson elementary schools, all with a large percentage of students from low-income families. The state only provides funding for part-time kindergarten.

The Medford district has used some of its federal funding, dedicated to providing extra academic support to disadvantaged students, to extending the kindergarten day at low-income schools only.

The idea behind full-day kindergarten is that it gives some at-risk pupils a needed boost in reading, math and socialization, district officials said.

Medford's other seven elementary campuses have part-time kindergarten. One session goes from 7:55 a.m. to 10:40 a.m, and the second session is from 11:40 a.m. to 2:25 p.m.

"It was really a benefit to those kids that were developmentally ready for it," Miles said. "If they weren't developmentally ready, it was really hard for them to sit through such a long day. They often would adjust by January."

About 80 Oregon district in all provide some kind of extended-day kindergarten, according to 2008 statistics from the Oregon Department of Education.

The elimination of full-day kindergarten could affect up to a dozen jobs. About half of the district's 25 kindergarten teachers would no longer be assigned to teach kindergarten, Miles said. He said most would be assigned to teach other grade levels or asked to teach part-time. He said he couldn't rule out the possibility that some could be laid off, depending on the outcome of ongoing labor negotiations and how many teachers opt to retire or resign before the end of the academic year.

Miles said one of his main concerns about cutting full-day kindergarten is for students in poverty who depend on having a hot meal at school. He said he is looking into whether it's possible for those students to have that meal even if they are on a half-day schedule.

Three factors prompted the decision to eliminate full-day kindergarten. First, the district had to cut $10 million to $13 million from its $90 million budget due to unrealized income tax revenue at the state level. Second, federal stimulus funds to help schools have expired, and third, the district is in a punitive status known as "in need of improvement" under No Child Left Behind.

The status was triggered when Howard Elementary School, McLoughlin Middle School and North Medford and South Medford high schools all failed last year to meet grade-level standards in math in one or more subgroups of students.

As punishment, the district is required to withdraw $640,000 of its $3.2 million in federal funds intended for low-income students to pay for additional services at the four schools needing improvement, said Teri Dahl, Medford schools special services supervisor. That includes providing tutors, providing transportation to students who wish to transfer to another district campus that isn't in need of improvement and academic interventions for struggling pupil. That money was previously used to fund two-thirds of all-day kindergarten, Dahl said.

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