Concerns over the future of east Pasco’s kindergarteners, specifically those at an early learning center that could be converted to a K-6 elementary school, dominated the Pasco School District’s latest public meetings on boundary realignment Wednesday night.
About 200 parents, educators and community members attended the meetings at Captain Gray Early Learning Center, with the majority attending the Spanish-language meeting at the school.
Captain Gray would become a K-6 science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, elementary school under the district’s realignment proposal. That prompted comments regarding what would happen to kindergarten education and whether it was worth converting Captain Gray to get another STEM school.
“This is the foundation of learning for these kids’ lives,” said Kim Holdiman, a paraeducator at the school.
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New boundaries are needed as the district prepares to open Marie Curie STEM and Barbara McClintock STEM elementary schools next fall. Curie is being built next to Whittier Elementary School and McClintock, which is scheduled to be an early learning center, in west Pasco.
District officials have proposed making Whittier part of a two-school system, with kindergartners through second-graders attending Whittier and third- through sixth-graders attending neighboring Curie. Students for both schools would come from Whittier’s attendance area but also some areas served by Emerson, Rowena Chess and Virgie Robinson elementary schools.
Captain Gray as a STEM elementary school would take territory from neighborhoods currently assigned to Longfellow and Emerson elementary schools. Robert Frost Elementary School’s boundary would shrink the most, with some of its students sent instead to Emerson or McGee Elementary School, while Virgie Robinson’s main attendance area was left largely unchanged.
The district released a revised proposal Wednesday in response to comments at the first public information meetings last week. It shifted boundaries a bit, with Whittier and Curie taking some homes immediately east of Fourth Avenue north of Court Street and Captain Gray taking a few blocks north of Court Street.
The changes had a long list of benefits, from reducing busing to keeping schools under 900 students. But district officials noted that it will still lead to some schools being overcrowded, doesn’t allow much room for growth and will still make Captain Gray, currently a full-day kindergarten, a K-6 school. Many staff at the school oppose the conversion but the district says it is the only logical option, as Captain Gray can hold more students than it currently serves for kindergarteners.
“If we had another building, it would be amazing,” Assistant Superintendent Sarah Thornton told the Herald.
Holdiman and others noted that the district is only moving students around and not creating new space to house them beyond Curie with the realignment. At the same time, the conversion would break up a group of 25 kindergarten teachers who have developed programs and practices to get students on the right track.
“I just see it as an advantage to keep this as a kindergarten center,” said Ricardo Espinoza, a former Pasco School Board member.
Others raised questions about the cost of converting Captain Gray to a STEM school, how the district’s realignment would work given passage of Initiative 1351, the class size reduction measure voters approved in November, and whether full-day kindergarten would be available at all the other elementary schools. Thornton said the district is seeking those answers from state education officials. A few also called attention to McClintock’s planned role as an early learning center.
“If (converting Captain Gray) is the only thing you can do, you can’t have a kindergarten center on the west side,” one teacher said. “You can’t have that friction.”
District officials told the Herald while staff responses to the Captain Gray conversion have been largely negative, parents tend to have mixed feelings. Some like the increased attention a kindergarten center provides while others see transitioning their students from Captain Gray to a standard elementary school as an unnecessary disruption, Thornton said.
Teachers at the school, though, said parent feedback is likely to be skewed. Some won’t comment out of fear for their legal status in the country. Nine out of ten students at Captain Gray come from Hispanic families, the teachers said, and their culture encourages parents to defer their opinions on their children’s education to those in authority.
Captain Gray has been a boon for Araceli Garcilazo’s two daughters, who will both be in elementary school next year. She has a 9-month-old son at home, she said, and she wants him to attend full-day kindergarten like her girls. But that can be at a standard K-6 school as easily as at Captain Gray.
“They learn so much; they benefit from it,” Garcilazo told the Herald.