Cheryl Mendez dropped off her son, Joseph, at Cortada Elementary School on Tuesday morning. It was his fifth birthday and his first day of kindergarten, milestones important enough to concern any young child.
Joseph was among nearly 700 students who marked the traditional first day of school by roaming the courtyard in search of classrooms and familiar faces. Carrying new notebooks, they rushed to greet and hug teachers. And a few shed tears as they left their parents.
The only thing that wasn't traditional about the day was that it fell in July rather than September.
"He doesn't know the difference," Mendez said. "He's just excited about school."
Joseph was also unaware that the year-round schedule that started last week at two schools in the El Monte City School District meant that his mother had to get up at 7 a.m. and forgo beach and park excursions to accommodate his school schedule.
Under the new program, classes at Cortada and Loma elementary schools will run from July to July rather than from September to June. Not counting weekends, students will attend school for 60 days, then go on vacation for 20 days. The school year will consist of three blocks of class work--a total of 180 days--and three vacations.
The program was instituted to combat overcrowding in the schools.
Under the multitrack system used by most year-round schools, students are divided into four groups. At any given time, three groups are in school and one group is on vacation. But for the first year only, the two El Monte district schools will operate under a single-track system, in which everyone attends school and goes on vacation at the same time.
District officials hope that starting with the single-track system will help ease adjustment to the multitrack system.
To ensure continuity for students, the district started the program at Cortada and Loma, which serve students in kindergarten through sixth grade, and plans to expand it next year to Potrero Elementary School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade facility. All three schools are in the southern part of the district, and Cortada and Loma students go to Potrero for the seventh and eighth grades.
May Reduce Burnout
Administrators say that the system should reduce teacher burnout and that shorter, more frequent breaks should help students learn more.
The plan generated some controversy while it was being developed, but administrators, parents, teachers and students say they are beginning to recognize its merits.
"We really feel that the three months the students are away from school (under the old system) impairs their learning," said Susan Bierman, assistant superintendent for instruction. "We need to spend four to six weeks reviewing material that they knew in June."
Teachers at another district school, Mulhall Elementary, in the north central area, like the idea so much that they have petitioned the school board to allow Mulhall to begin a single-track year-round program next July.
School board President Patricia Nichols said the board is considering Mulhall's request, as well as studying the possibility of using the system elsewhere. She said the study and public hearings required to institute the year-round program take at least a year--a process that has not begun for any other school.
'Long, Hard Thought'
"The Board of Education is solidly behind the year-round program," Nichols said. "We gave it a lot of long, hard thought."
The Mulhall petition, signed by 16 of the school's 17 teachers, also asks that Mulhall offer enrollment to as many other students in the north central area as it can handle, so that more children can reap the benefits of the program.
"The school districts that have used it have certainly proven that the students have done better, and we thought it was worth a try here," said Lillian Prince, Mulhall's principal.
Year-round instruction is common in other districts in the state, especially the Los Angeles Unified School District. But in the San Gabriel Valley, only Duff Elementary School in Rosemead has adopted the system.
The El Monte school board voted to adopt the system more than a year ago, when even portable classrooms could not handle the schools' rising enrollment. Cortada, built to accommodate 500 children, has 700. Loma, built for 200, has 350.
'Such Small Areas'
"It's difficult for us to provide quality instruction when you have such small areas in which to conduct classes," said Cortada Principal Martha M. Surbida.
The two schools reflect a trend toward growing enrollment in most of the elementary school district, which covers parts of El Monte, South El Monte, Arcadia, Irwindale and Temple City. Since the 1981-82 school year, overall enrollment has increased from 8,500 to 10,500 students, and officials estimate that it will reach 13,000 by 1991.
"The overcrowding gave us the impetus we needed to go year-round, but the real advantage is the educational benefit," Bierman said.