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Kindergarten crisis ahead?

By Matthew Stolle

The Post-Bulletin

At Longfellow Elementary School, many kindergarten students show up for the first day of school unable to write their names. Some in this ethnically and racially diverse school don’t speak English.

A year later, their academic progress is striking, teachers say. As many as 80 percent enter the first grade at or above grade level — some a full grade ahead.

Longfellow teachers list one major contributing factor to that academic outcome: All-day, everyday kindergarten.

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"We have an administrator who understands that if we get them on the right track early, there are fewer problems later," said Kim Firstbrook, a Longfellow teacher.

State lawmakers are considering making all-day kindergarten the norm, not the exception. That would put Rochester public schools in a bind.

"We simply do not have the classrooms," said Rep. Kim Norton, a Rochester Democrat who served two terms on the Rochester School Board.

Rochester Superintendent Jerry Williams estimates the district would need to build an extra 23 classrooms at its elementary schools. He puts the cost between $6.3 million to $10 million. Small schools would perhaps need one extra classroom and large elementary schools as many as four.

Minnesota currently funds only half-day kindergarten, although some districts choose to offer all-day programs, diverting funds from other services.

For Rochester elementary schools that offer a half-day program, a shift to all-day would double the space requirements needed to serve kindergarten students.

That may not be a problem for districts that are losing enrollment, but for Rochester, a congested district growing at an estimated 2 percent to 4 percent a year, space is tight.

That’s why some lawmakers are watching the evolving legislation to make sure that all-day kindergarten remains an option, not a mandate. The price tag for implementing a statewide program varies from $160 million to $260 million.

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Williams said the construction of additional classrooms probably could be funded through the district’s alternative facilities levy, which does not require a voter referendum.

Relief for the district’s congested schools also could come in the form of a new elementary school built in northwest Rochester, an option that the school board has been studying. That would require a referendum, which Williams said could come between May and this fall, once the board approves it.

Williams hesitates to say whether the district would mandate all-day kindergarten. The fact is that some parents prefer a half-day program.

If the state makes it optional, "then what will probably happen is that half-day would become the choice," Williams said, "and all-day could become the default (option)."

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