Minnesota Legislature: All-day kindergarten push gains momentum
Kindergartners Raeja Washington, left, and Jada-Lyn Campbell play a letter game in teacher Amanda Dachel’s class at American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul. The district offers full-day kindergarten to all its students without charging fees to parents. (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)
“Happy,” she says confidently, passing the pail to one of her classmates at American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul.
Raeja is among the two dozen students who spend a full school day, every weekday, in Amanda Dachel’s kindergarten class. A simple letter game might seem like play. But bundled into that activity, students are learning important lessons about letters and how to sound them out to form words, along with social skills like waiting your turn and playing well with others.
St. Paul has seen academic and social gains for students and that’s why the district continues to offer full-day kindergarten to all its students without charging fees to parents. That, on top of a highly popular preschool program, is part of St. Paul’s strategy to better prepare children for school and to help close the so-called achievement gap between minority and low-income students and their peers.
“People think they just come here to play. But in our culture of high-stakes testing, there isn’t enough time for just play. Preschoolers are learning their letters, how to rhyme and expand their vocabulary,” said Bonnie Reyes, an early childhood content coach in St. Paul. “It’s not just play. And it’s not just baby sitting.”
Targeting Minnesota’s earliest learners is a top education priority this legislative session, where proposals that expand access to all-day kindergarten and high-quality preschools or child care programs are being considered. It’s been debated for years, but advocates say that with research piling up on the benefits of early learning — higher graduation rates and healthier adults, for example — lawmakers are buying in.
“The difference between this year and prior years is night and day,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools. “It just feels right. There just a can-do attitude that’s around the Capitol on this issue.”
Minnesota lags the rest of the nation in kindergarten options, with the state providing districts only enough money to offer half-day programs. Just more than half of Minnesota kindergartners are in publicly funded full-day programs, compared with almost two-thirds of students nationwide.
Gov. Mark Dayton wants to add $40 million in state funding over the next two years to help schools offer all-day kindergarten. That’s about one-eighth of the estimated $320 million needed to fully cover costs.
Cecconi said the figure might be small but could be enough to get more schools to offer it.
“I think it’s enough of a boost to motivate districts to get in gear,” Cecconi said.
St. Paul has been offering all-day kindergarten for years. Voter-approved levies have helped fund the program, and $9 million of the district’s $30 million levy renewal in the spring will go toward full-day kindergarten and other early-learning programs. The district pitched its levy request with test scores — reading scores have gone up 9 percentage points since 2007.
Reyes said all-day kindergarten gives teachers twice the amount of time to work with children, and it’s harder and harder to get all the necessary work into just three hours with all the testing requirements. And even more important, full days give teachers more time to work on student social skills, such as following directions, and to build stronger relationships. That makes the transition to school much easier for students, Reyes said.
Dachel wove those lessons in activities throughout the morning Thursday. She displayed the morning greeting, reading it out loud to students and asking them to figure out a few missing letters and note whether they should be uppercase or lowercase.
“Remember, keep it inside. Raise your hands,” she gently reminded students, who restrained themselves from shouting out the answers but eagerly waved their hands in the air.
“All right, whisper it to me,” she said.
“D,” they chimed in with hushed voices.
As one classmate writes the letter on the board, the rest use their fingers to write it in the air.
Research has long shown that all-day kindergarten delivers results.
A University of Minnesota study of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district’s all-day kindergarten program during the 2003-04 school year found significant increases in every academic skill tested. It also found the gap between minority and white students had been eliminated, while the disparity between low-income students and their peers had been diminished.
District teachers interviewed by university researchers cited more in-depth instruction and closer relationships with students as some of the benefits of full-day kindergarten. And parents were overwhelmingly satisfied with the program.
Without full funding from the state, budgets often limited what families and school districts chose for preschool and kindergarten programs.
South Washington County schools opted first to offer preschool, with a fee for those who could afford it, at every elementary school instead of free all-day kindergarten.
It is more cost-effective than funding full-day kindergarten — $225,000 compared with $2 million. But a bigger reason South Washington County chose to offer preschool was that fewer than half of South Washington County’s students were ready for kindergarten, mirroring statewide results, said Assistant Superintendent Dave Bernhardson.
“These kids weren’t ready for half-day kindergarten, let alone full-day kindergarten,” Bernhardson said. “We needed to get kids ready for kindergarten and it’s working. We’ve seen significant gains.”
About 72 percent of prekindergarten students in South Washington County were proficient in letter naming in 2011-12, up 9 percent from fall. And 51 percent were proficient in letter sounds, up 11 percent from fall.
Minnesota spends about $355 million a year on prekindergarten education. That includes public school programs such as early childhood and family education and early special education services, as well as scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to high-quality preschools and child care settings of their choice.
This year, about 850 children have access to such scholarships of up to $4,000 with the help of state and federal money. Dayton wants to add $44 million to that program to help send another 10,000 students to prekindergarten programs.
St. Paul started offering preschool in 2005, now enrolling about 1,100 students at 29 elementary schools. Most of the children enrolled — about 85 percent — qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Almost 800 students are on the waiting list.
Wilder Research studies show that children who went through the preschool program had significantly advanced academic skills when they entered kindergarten. For example, children enrolled in the program during the 2007-08 school year had a 10-month advantage in vocabulary and math, a five-month advantage in reading and a six-month advantage in writing over their fellow kindergartners who had no preschool experience.
And teacher surveys say those students in the pre-kindergarten program had enhanced social skills and fewer behavioral problems than their peers.