Schools scramble to meet demand for all-day K, preschool
Christopher Magan and MaryJo Webster, Pioneer Press, June 1, 2013 – Kindergarten teacher Jonalyn Lippka has some advice for her colleagues who soon will be spending more time with the youngest learners.
“You have to go slow to go fast,” said Lippka of the need for a deliberate pace and repetitive teaching for young students. “There will be growing pains, but they’re good growing pains.”
School leaders across Minnesota also might heed the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage teacher’s advice as they work to hire staff and find space for state-funded, all-day kindergarten to begin in 2014. The program will be voluntary; districts can choose whether or not to take the funding, and parents can still stick with half-day kindergarten, if they wish.
It’s part of $485 million in new education spending approved by the Legislature, much of which is focused on the state’s youngest students.
Currently, 54 percent of Minnesota families have access to free all-day kindergarten programs — such as those Burnsville began providing this school year — and many others pay thousands for the longer day, so demand is expected to be high.
Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, said her staff is working to ease the transition over the next year by helping districts address hurdles like finding classroom space, reorganizing transportation routes, hiring teachers and updating curriculum.
“A lot of districts saw this coming,” said Cassellius, who expects most districts to implement it in 2014. “There are some with space issues that may hold off a year.”
It will probably be more difficult in rural Minnesota, where space and transportation already are a challenge for districts.
It also will be tricky for some metro districts, even if they offer paid, full-day programs already.
For example, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools, the state’s fourth-largest district, expects to need to juggle space to find 20 additional classrooms to meet the demand. It also will need to hire staff and work out transportation problems.
“Those are short-term problems. Space can be dealt with; we know the teachers are out there,” said Superintendent Jane Berenz. “It’s turning on the switch all of a sudden.”
Educators long have pushed for state funding for full-day programs because they see early education as key to preparing students and closing Minnesota’s persistent achievement gap between poor and minority students and their white and affluent counterparts.
State lawmakers included $134 million for all-day kindergarten and $40 million for preschool scholarships in the education spending bill.
The funding can’t come soon enough for parents like Tracey Jansen.
The Lino Lakes mother will spend more than $3,000 to send daughter Abby to an all-day program next year; the following year twin sons Daniel and Colton will attend similar programs free thanks to the new legislation.
“It’s a little painful to talk to other people whose kids are going for free,” Jansen said, referring to nearby districts that already offer free programs. “I was conflicted about what is the right choice for my daughter. I felt this primal tug. What if not doing it puts her at a disadvantage?”
Jansen already was paying for in-home day care, so the longer school day presented an additional cost. In the end, Jansen said she took the advice of Abby’s preschool teacher and opted for all-day.
“If she went half-day, she’d just be getting her feet wet and then getting on the bus to go home,” Jansen said.
Not everyone agrees these investments in early learning will translate into great improvements in achievement.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, is skeptical that state spending for all-day kindergarten for every student will have a noticeable affect on learning or the achievement gap. Many districts already offer fee-based programs and offer scholarships to poor and at-risk students, he said.
He worries parents will see all-day kindergarten as a replacement for day care and that some cash-strapped districts may have to spend additional resources to meet the demand.
“I haven’t seen any evidence, and we’ve had all-day kindergarten in this state for the last 10 years,” Hann said. “We’d be better off allowing districts to make decisions on how they spend their money.”
Nevertheless, the demand for early learning opportunities continues to grow.
The number of Minnesota kindergartners is growing, and about 3,700 more students are expected by the end of the decade, according to the latest U.S. census data. The number of students in public preschool is growing at a quicker pace, increasing by nearly 50 percent in the last decade, department of education data shows.
Those students are significantly more diverse than their predecessors and often come from homes where English is not the native language. The fact that poverty is growing, particularly among children, also will be an issue.
Susan Brower, Minnesota’s state demographer, said poverty is growing in all Twin Cities communities because of the recession. Many of those poor households are headed by single mothers.
Even in the suburbs, about 22 percent of the households headed by single mothers were in poverty, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The increase is most noticeable in the suburbs because that is also where the most population growth has been, Brower said.
“The growth in poverty among children has been so great,” she said. “And that’s not unique to the suburbs. But that’s where they’re feeling it the most in contrast to 10, 15 or 20 years ago.”
School districts from Stillwater to Lakeville are beefing up preschool and family education programs to address the challenges of poverty and limited English fluency before students get to the kindergarten classroom. Demand for these services continues to grow, but space is limited.
In Lakeville, where student enrollment has been stagnant, district leaders last year transformed the closed Crystal Lake Elementary School into an early childhood center. The facility is a central location for services like preschool, parent education, early childhood screenings and special education for toddlers.
“It really has a family focus,” said Julie Ritter, early-childhood and family education manager. “Parents are such an important factor in school readiness. We focus on that.”
In its first year, the center served nearly 900 children, including adding 74 families between the fall of 2012 and winter of 2013. Staff is converting more classrooms for next year.
As the state increases early learning scholarships, Ritter and Steve Porter, Lakeville’s community-education director, hope to be able to serve even more families. Program fees are on a sliding scale based on income.
“We serve a mix of families,” Porter said. “We are seeing more poverty, more diversity and more (English as a Second Language.) The demographics are shifting. We welcome all these students. We want to serve the entire population.”
The changing population has caught the attention of the entire community. Stakeholders from Lakeville businesses, churches, medical providers and schools met May 30 to discuss ways to partner to improve school readiness.
Despite the investment by state lawmakers and the efforts of metro school districts to serve more students, access to early learning is limited. New money for preschool scholarships is expected to serve 8,000 more students — about a quarter of the demand, state officials said.
A recent report by the National Institute for Early Education Research found preschool spending by states nationwide fell by more than half a billion dollars between 2011 and 2012, the largest one-year decline in history. Much of the decrease can be attributed to spending cuts prompted by the recession.
The institute’s survey gives Minnesota high marks for how it spends money earmarked for preschool. But when it comes to access, the state trails much of the nation, with 1,731 of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in public preschool, just 1.2 percent of the state population. The national average is 16 percent.
Minnesota has a wealth of private child care and preschool providers, which could explain the relatively low enrollment in public programs compared with other states.
Cassellius says action at the Capitol this legislative session signals that the tide is turning. Besides new money dedicated for all-day kindergarten and early learning scholarships, lawmakers freed up other funding that school districts and parents can tap for early education.
It will take time for funding, classroom space and programming to catch up.
“We are seeing a trend across Minnesota,” Cassellius said. “Elementary schools are being reconfigured. Our goal is every child is ready for kindergarten and every student is reading by third grade.”