East metro: Full-day kindergarten pleases both parents, districts

/ 31 October 2012 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, October 31, 2012 – Full-day kindergarten is proving a hit with families in districts that expanded free programs this school year.

Popular with educators who say it boosts student achievement, the all-day kindergarten programs also can be a boon to enrollment. Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools saw an 18 percent jump in kindergarten enrollment over last year after implementing free, all-day kindergarten, according to district data. All 10 elementary buildings saw growth, with a total of 135 more students enrolling in kindergarten.

A year ago, fewer than half the district’s kindergarten families paid for the extended school day, but now that the full-day option is free, nearly every family is choosing it.

The numbers are good news for a district that’s struggling to stabilize enrollment and close a gap between the achievement of white and affluent students and their poor and minority counterparts.

“It has been fantastic,” said Jon Bonneville, principal of Hidden Valley Elementary School in Savage. “I’ve had enough enrollment to bring on an additional staff member.”

Anoka-Hennepin schools also expanded free full-day kindergarten offerings to 10 buildings this year. Now 14 of the district’s 24 elementary schools offer all-day programs. Like Burnsville, Anoka-Hennepin is seeing a decline in overall enrollment, but the numbers are not dropping as fast as the district initially had projected.

Anoka-Hennepin school leaders say it is too early to tell if all-day kindergarten is bolstering enrollment, but they are looking at expanding the program further next school year.

Leaders in both districts say the true motivation behind offering all-day kindergarten programs is to boost student achievement and close the achievement gap. Each district has schools with high concentrations of students in poverty who often come to kindergarten less prepared to learn than their peers.

At Hidden Valley, 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, a federal indicator of poverty, and 37 percent have limited English proficiency. Bonneville, the principal, estimates half of his incoming kindergartners are unprepared for school.

But Bonneville has seen how an extended kindergarten school day can help students catch up. Before the districtwide launch of all-day kindergarten, he piloted a similar program with students who were learning English and saw it translate into improved achievement in later grades.

He sees all-day kindergarten as a way to extend that opportunity to all his students.

“They love it. They can go through the day and not be rushed,” Bonneville said. “I’ve been very pleased with the progress they are making.”

At Anoka-Hennepin, Associate Superintendent Mary Wolverton says the district’s research shows that students who complete kindergarten having met certain benchmarks are much more likely to have strong literacy skills in later grades. All-day kindergarten increases the likelihood students will have the needed skills before entering first grade.

“It really is all about student achievement,” Wolverton said.

Yet, district leaders are quick to point out there is added cost to these programs. To make up the difference, Burnsville is using $1.5 million in “compensatory” funding the district receives to aid struggling students, and Anoka-Hennepin is tapping new state dollars aimed at improving literacy.

The number of districts across the Twin Cities offering all-day kindergarten, either for free or a fee, continues to grow, but the state only provides funding for half-day programs.

“The greater hurdle is always budget,” Wolverton said.