Area school districts explain costs of all-day kindergarten

Monticello superintendent Jim Johnson didn’t sugarcoat the news that Monticello’s all-day kindergarten rates have climbed above the local average when he addressed the board for a proposed rate hike last week.
In recent years there has been growing public opinion that all-day kindergarten brings advantages and a steady drumbeat of opinion-makers espousing the benefits of a full-day program for today’s academics-oriented kindergarten.

In response, the Monticello district and others have seen growing participation in their optional all-day programs, and some schools in the surrounding area have begun subsidizing the costs.

The question the Monticello budget committee and school board members face now is whether they want to change philosophies and bear some of the costs within the district budget, compared with the current system of charging families for costs associated with the children’s extra time in school.

At least three school districts in the surrounding area are moving toward free or subsidized all-day kindergarten programs: Big Lake, Buffalo and the Elk River school district (which also includes Rogers and Zimmerman).

The Big Lake school district used to charge similar fees to Monticello for their all-day kindergarten, but they have begun using grant money to reduce their rates for all students to a current fee of $1,350 per year ($150 per month). Big Lake hasn’t set final prices for the 2013-2014 school year, but this district said they would ideally move prices down to $1,170 per year ($130 per month) for next year.

The Elk River school district has made the most dramatic move towards all-day kindergarten in the local area. Last fall their school board approved a free, 5.5-hour per day kindergarten program, which will take effect this fall. Their current year’s program has an optional all-day kindergarten program for $2,700, which has kids in school for over six hours per day. Students in this district who aren’t in the full-day program attend kindergarten every other day for full days.

“It is a big change, but the teachers and administration felt that having students go every day without a break in their learning will help in retaining information,” said Elk River’s kindergarten programmer Andie Zwirner. “Our school board and administration decided it was in best interest of all students.”

The Buffalo district subsidizes all-day kindergarten costs in a way that might catch Monticello board members’ attention. Buffalo charges $2,587 for their all-day kindergarten program (compared with Monticello’s $2,665), but the rate changes for lower-income families. If a student qualifies for a reduced lunch price based on family income, the all-day kindergarten rate drops to $1,965. If a family qualifies for free school lunches, the price falls to $1,344.

Out of the schools in surrounding areas that are still running traditional fee-based all-day programs, Monticello’s current rates fall below St. Michael-Albertville’s ($2,700 per year), but above nearby Becker ($2,565 per year). Otsego’s Kaleidoscope Charter School provides free all-day kindergarten for all students, and Monticello’s Swan River Montessori school charges $2,700 for the full-day program, which director Sandy Morrow said all but a small handful of families take part in every year.

“Our full-day program is a very enriching program, so depending on what they’re doing when they are not in kindergarten, generally children who are here all day have more academic skills than those who are here half day,” Morrow said.

When the Monticello school board took up the  issue at last week’s meeting, members discussed the possibility of changing their current scholarship program to help more students. Currently, Johnson said there are four scholarships available per all-day kindergarten section, which are given out through a lottery system. Those who receive a scholarship attend the all-day program at no cost.

Many board members took interest in the idea that a sliding scale fee, such as Buffalo’s fee schedule, would give the district the ability to help more families afford all-day kindergarten.

While it seemed to be a general consensus to research this possibility, some board members maintained that lower prices for everyone, as Big Lake is doing, is even more important so middle class families aren’t disadvantaged. After all, a sizable percentage of Monticello families do not qualify for low-income assistance, yet cost might be a prohibitive factor in sending their child all day, even if the family would prefer this option.

Though a change in philosophy is currently on the table for future years, it seems most likely that the Monticello school board won’t be making any drastic changes for the 2013-2014 school year.

Johnson said the district will decide next year’s all-day kindergarten rates at the March 4 board meeting after failing to reach an agreement at the last meeting, and they are using this time to crunch numbers and pull data to determine the best course of action for next fall and beyond.

Of particular interest during their deliberations is the number of all-day kindergarten students who struggle with schoolwork in future years compared with half-day students, and whether all-day kindergarten provides a temporary boost or a more long-term advantage.

Johnson said he has seen research that suggests academic performance is noticeably different between all-day and half-day students in first and second grade, but levels out after that. He said they would be looking at Monticello’s numbers specifically to see if their data reinforces these findings or not.

Logistically, the district must also consider how much classroom space it has to expand all-day kindergarten offerings., he added.

“Since we started this program we’ve always wanted to accommodate as many kids as we can,” Johnson said. “When you look back historically, we didn’t have the dollars, but now we might be in a position where we could to do that. If we can provide opportunities for more kids who can’t do it now based on dollars, I’m all for that.”

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.