Only 13 states in the country require schools districts to offer free full-day kindergarten as part of the school day.
Colorado is not one of them.
In Colorado, districts are only required to offer half-day kindergarten. And because of a lack of per-pupil funding from the state, parents who want to send their children to full-day programs are required to pay an average tuition of $300 a month.
“We would prefer to have full-day kindergarten for everyone without charging if we had the money,” said Diana Wilson, communications director for Jefferson County Public Schools. “If the district could afford it, we would standardize it.”
How school districts around the metro area meet that challenge varies. Jeffco, the second-largest school district in the state with 86,000 students, and Douglas County, the third-largest district with 68,000 students, run similar programs, offering free half-day and paid full-day programs. Much smaller districts, such as Englewood Schools with 3,000 students and Westminster Public Schools with 9,600 students, have developed a model that offers free full-day kindergarten.
In Jeffco, full-day kindergarten is offered at 90 percent of its elementary schools. But for the majority, which do not receive Title 1 funding and for families who are not receiving free or reduced-price lunch, tuition must be paid for anything past the state-funded half day.
Funding for full-day kindergarten in Jeffco was cut from the budget six years ago by the board at that time. Now, each school offers something different based on the need in its community.
“Most schools have moved toward offering a full day because of the impact of early learning at that age and what we can offer throughout a full day,” said Dawn Odean, early childhood education director for Jeffco schools. “We work really hard for our kids regardless of which program their families choose, for whatever reason they choose.”
In Douglas County, the model is the same.
The district’s 48 elementary schools each choose to design a program specific to that community with the options of either a free half-day program or a tuition-based full-day program.
“It really comes down to how Colorado funds kindergarten,” said Carrie Stephenson, executive director of school leadership for Douglas County School District.
The State of Colorado funds kindergarten students at .58 full-time enrollment — meaning it only pays for about half a day’s worth of school time.
“We only receive partial funding from the state for kindergarten students,” Stephenson said. “So, it requires us to ask parents for tuition to fund the second part of that school day.”
But smaller districts, such as Englewood Schools, are able to supplement the state money with district general funds to offer free full-day kindergarten to all students.
“It’s what we determined will serve our community best and it’s what the students here in Englewood need in order to grow and achieve,” said Joanna Polzin, chief academic officer for Englewood Schools.
For Englewood, the full day allows the luxury of more time for not only academics but also social and emotional learning.
“The stories and concepts we are exposing them to are on a higher level and we also have the benefit of cross-curricular learning,” Polzin said. “I think overall it’s our teachers that make the difference. It really allows them the time to get out students on a deeper level.”
Westminster Public Schools has offered free full-day kindergarten for 10 years. Director of Early Childhood Education Mat Aubuchon said it’s only partially funded by the state, but the program is important to district leadership.
“By investing in programs such as this, we see students who are more prepared both academically and socially for the demanding schedule of an elementary schoolday,” Aubuchon said. “In addition, by providing full-day kindergarten, we have the added benefit of helping parents who now have full-day child care and are able to work while their young children are in school.”
When it comes to academics, the question is if those full-day students are better prepared for first grade.
Stephenson says they are — at first.
“We see that our full-day students — speaking in generality — have a little bit of a boost, but that tends to level out around second grade,” Stephenson said. “It’s not a long-lasting advantage.”
However, Matt Flores, chief academic officer for Jeffco schools, says the data is not definitive.
“It’s really hard to unpack the differences because we can’t account for what students do in the other half of the day,” Flores said.
“It’s tempting to say they are more prepared. But to truly unpack that with data to support that theory is something our data team hasn’t been able to do.”
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