Since his first few weeks in office, Governor Jared Polis has been pushing for free, full-day kindergarten statewide. It’s still not a done deal, as legislators continue to debate the $185 million dollar proposal at the State House, but as KGNU Roz Brown reports, four local school districts say it’s long overdue and would benefit not just students, but the entire state.
Kids who attend kindergarten or pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to excel academically than those who don’t or can’t attend kindergarten – even kids who eventually become academic leaders in the public schools.
“I didn’t understand the importance of raising my hand, or respecting other students in the classroom and their learning, I knew it all and felt that the teacher should pay attention to only myself and my needs,” said Lisa Roy, executive director of Early Childhood Education at the Denver Public Schools.
Roy says her grandmother was a teacher and coached her prior to first grade, but she still found the transition challenging without the benefit of kindergarten.
“When you think about the social/emotional needs of young children, part of it is self-regulation and learning how to get along with other students but also respecting the learning of other students in the classroom,” said Roy.
Ninety-percent of children in the U.S. attend a public school but very few schools find the money for full-day kindergarten. In Colorado, only half-day kindergarten is funded, which means parents who want full-day kindergarten need to pay for it. Roy says that can create a have- and have-not educational system.
“Again when you think about rural districts, urban settings, it’s fair to give that opportunity to any child or any family, and the burden on families, especially on our lower middle-income families puts us way behind, specifically our state, especially as the cost of housing has gone up,” said Roy.
In the St. Vrain Valley School District, some children spend a half-day, some a full day at school. The extra-half day would be optional under the governor’s proposal, but Superintendent Don Haddad is convinced additional classroom time makes a huge difference.
“We do see attendance improves, behavior improves, participation rates improve in extra-curricular activities, we see that satisfaction and enjoyment in school increase and then we see significantly higher numbers of students in middle school are taking more rigorous coursework – so it’s palpable,” said Haddad.
If universal full-day kindergarten can do all that, it seems like we’d already have it. We don’t because it would take $227 million dollars per year to cover the plan by Governor Polis. Haddad nonetheless believes it would save money down the road because successful students typically become successful adults.
“I know people talk about the cost,” said Haddad. “But it’s what I would describe as a great investment, and the return on that investment in both learning and self-confidence for students but also financial return on investment makes it well worthwhile,” said Haddad. “It’s part of who we are as America – we believe in an educated population, it’s crucial to our Democracy.”
Despite all the research, testimony and anecdotes about the benefits of full-day kindergarten, Diana Wilson with the Jefferson County Schools communications office says it’s not an easy issue for school districts.
“We have full-day kindergarten at all our elementary schools,” said Wilson. “Where we run into an issue is how we fund it. We pay the tuition for free and reduced lunch students, but our other families are asked to pay $300 per month, so obviously that can be a challenge.”
Governor Polis says full-day kindergarten can be funded without cutting other programs, because local property taxes are bringing in more revenue. Wilson is optimistic he’s right.
“For us the biggest question is sustainability, because K-12 funding from the state can be a little volatile, so if we run short on state budget, a lot of times K-12 takes a hit, and that can be very difficult for us because once you put something in place, it’s very difficult to take it away,” said Wilson.
Right now, about 50,000 Colorado students attend full-day programs and another 13,000 attend half-day programs. Boulder Valley schools have offered full-day kindergarten for Title 1 schools for many years, according to Superintendent Rob Anderson. He says with expanded funding, the district would be better equipped to serve all kids and make sure they don’t fall behind in reading or math.
“Most of our children are very successful, but we do have one of the largest achievement gaps in the state of Colorado, so our Latino students, our students who are growing up in poverty on free-and-reduced lunch, are not achieving at the level of their peers,” said Anderson.
Anderson believes Boulder Valley schools can be ready to implement full-day kindergarten as soon as the ink is dry on the legislation.
“We have a plan we introduced to our board to make sure our facilities are ready, making sure we have materials, teacher development and hiring, so we’ll make sure we’re ready to go in all those areas,” said Anderson.
If Colorado implements full-day kindergarten it would join about a dozen other states mostly in the South and East. Lisa Roy has been watching support for the proposal ebb and flow for 30 years, and is glad the governor made the issue one of his first priorities.
“I’m glad the governor is following through on this right away,” said Roy. “It’s something he was committed to because he has young children of his own and he understands the importance of this,” said Roy.
Right now, lawmakers have agreed to set aside $185 million dollars, or 80 percent of what the governor requested because they assume not all districts will be ready by the fall of 2019 to make the change.