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Free for all: School District 833 plans rollout of free, all-day kindergarten

When she walks by Grey Cloud Elementary School with her dad, Isabelle Boyd points to the building and says, “That’s my school.”

Isabelle, who turned 5 on July 22, is excited about attending all-day kindergarten in the fall, said her father, Dan Boyd.

“I think she’s really looking forward to the full day,” Boyd said. “She’s excited about the usual kid things like eating lunch at school and talking to her teachers.”

Isabelle is one of 1,160 students in District 833 enrolled in kindergarten for the 2014-15 school year, which begins Sept. 2.

“I think the benefit of all-day kindergarten is getting them used to the school setting and the school day, learning how to work with peers,” Boyd said.

Boyd and other parents throughout the district now can send their kids to free all-day kindergarten, thanks to increased state aid to help pay for the expansion. The Legislature approved $134 million last year specifically to provide free kindergarten in districts and charter schools throughout Minnesota.

The funding means that parents like Boyd and his wife, Sam, won’t have to pay for extending Isabelle’s half-day kindergarten to a full day. The district’s “kindergarten plus” program offered the half-day free and charged tuition for the afternoon portion.

“We were going to plan on sending her to all-day kindergarten even if we had to pay,” he said. “It saves our day care costs.”

While the change is good news for parents across the state who couldn’t afford to pay for all-day kindergarten, some school districts are facing a space crunch because of increased enrollment.

But District 833 has not had to build new classrooms or hire new staff specifically to teach kindergarten, said Julie Nielsen, a District 833 assistant superintendent.

“It just means shifting space,” Nielsen said. “Right now we feel we have adequate space for all our kindergarten sections.”

Enrollment last year was 808 for all-day kindergarten and 371 for the half-day program.

With all-day kindergarten enrollment topping 1,000 this year, District 833 has rearranged 10 existing classrooms to accommodate all-day kindergarten.

The district will continue to offer the free half-day program for parents who want it for their children.

“I think we will see when the first day of school starts how that transition looks,” Nielsen said.

With less than 40 kids signed up for half-day kindergarten program, the district should save transportation costs by scaling back its midday bus routes, Nielsen said.

“What it’s going to eliminate  is that midday route where we had to drop off the a.m. kindergartners and pick up the p.m. kindergarteners,” Nielsen said.

Transportation will still be provided to children in the half-day program, she said.

Half- and full-day kindergarten students will learn core subjects like math and reading in the mornings. Lunch and recess will follow half-day student dismissal. Afternoons could include rest time and story and subjects like music, physical education, art, social studies, science and health, according to the District 833 website.

Parents can still switch their child from half-day to all-day kindergarten up to the first day of school.

“It’s not really that we’re starting something new,” Nielsen said. “We just have to be more considerate of the kids who are opting for the half-day program.”

Prior to the state funding initiative, about 54 percent of the state’s kindergarten students had access to free, all-day kindergarten, said Keith Hovis, deputy director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Education.

“Currently, we expect every district and charter school to offer full-day, daily kindergarten and we expect 95 percent of the kindergarten students in the state to be enrolled in free, full-day, daily kindergarten,” he said in an e-mail.