Soda Creek Elementary School kindergartner Bonnie Sue Larson plays at recess Monday afternoon. State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is proposing that the state fully fund kindergarten programs at public schools across the state.

Photo by John F. Russell

Soda Creek Elementary School kindergartner Bonnie Sue Larson plays at recess Monday afternoon. State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is proposing that the state fully fund kindergarten programs at public schools across the state.

In Steamboat Springs, full-day kindergarten funding an ongoing challenge for both parents and educators

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Cost of full-day kindergarten to parents

Steamboat Springs School District: $13.75/day

Hayden School District: $8/day

South Routt School District: Free

Moffat County School District: Free

— Paul Sachs told the leaders of the Steamboat Springs School District last month their inability to fund a full day of kindergarten causes some young students here to ask their parents a tough question: Why are some of my friends always going home halfway through the school day?

For three Steamboat kindergarteners this school year, and more before them, the answer is their parents cannot afford to pay the $200 to $250 a month needed to enroll in Steamboat's full-day program at Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary schools.

“I think it's a terrible way to start the educational process in this district to send a message to students their educational opportunities are going to be delineated in kindergarten because of the economic situation of their parents,” Sachs, who has kids in the district, told School Board members.

In Colorado, the state contributes about 58 percent of the cost of each district's full-day kindergarten program. State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and other lawmakers who are working to change how public schools in the state are funded want to bump up the state's share to 100 percent.

They also want to change a funding system that has some districts either picking up the rest of the cost or asking parents to help cover it.

“It kind of levels the playing field, which is important,” Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks said in praise of Johnston's proposal.

In Routt County, that playing field is far from level.

A full day of kindergarten in Steamboat costs most parents $13.75 a day, or about $2,400 a year.

In Hayden, a full day of kindergarten costs families $8 a day.

And in the South Routt and Moffat County school districts, parents pay nothing because the districts cover what the state does not.

“We think and we have thought for a very long time early education is the place to put your money,” South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader said. “We don't want any parent to be left out and unable to send their student to a full day of kindergarten. And the students who would be left out are the students who need it most.”

A two-sided struggle

Meeks is well aware of the desire of many parents and educators in his district to make full-day kindergarten affordable for all parents. Last year, the district asked the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board to grant it the $240,630 it estimated it would need this school year to end the tuition system.

But the application was tabled after some School Board members questioned whether the request would hurt the district's ability to use Fund Board dollars to pay the salaries of classroom teachers needed to maintain small class sizes in Steamboat. They also questioned whether to accept such a grant without assurance that it would be an annual commitment from the Fund Board.

Meeks said Monday he still wants to find a way to make the kindergarten more affordable for parents.

“There will still be some families who still only want a half-day option, but at least money doesn't become a barrier for parents who want to participate in the full-day program,” he said, adding the investment in early childhood education is important for any school district.

In the meantime, Steamboat continues to tweak its tuition-based program that creates challenges both for a district coping with shrinking budgets and for parents struggling to afford the tuition.

This year, there are new discounts for parents who have twins in the program or whose children are in the free and reduced lunch program. There also is a $200 discount for parents who pay for the whole year up front.

Steamboat launched it's full-day kindergarten program in 2008 after a survey of parents revealed they strongly supported the program and were willing to pay for it. The district initially offered scholarships to parents who couldn't afford the full tuition. The scholarships were discontinued after many more parents qualified for them than the district anticipated.

“Now it's more just trying to make sure we don't have to call parents five times asking for the tuition, or pulling their child out of the classroom at noon,” Ginesta said. “It can be traumatic for the child who has to leave halfway through the day. It's not something we want to do.”

The changes come after the district has had to cope for sevearal years with late and non-payments from some families.

Three years ago, it got so bad the district had to use a collection agency to recover $2,969 in unpaid tuition from several families of all-day kindergarten students.

“It's very frustrating, because we know people are struggling financially,” Ginesta said.

Today, 157 kindergartens are enrolled in the district's full- and half-day kindergarten program. The cost of that program has increased since it was launched in 2008 as the kindergarten student population has grown and more teachers have been added to accommodate them.

A worthy investment

Moffat County Superintendent Joe Petrone said Monday his district began fully funding its all-day kindergarten program in the 2009-10 school year.

Teachers there were strong advocates for the program.

“Our practitioners were suggesting it makes a difference in the children, and we think it has,” Petrone said. “We're delighted the state is thinking about doing that for all students.”

He said a small group of parents initially resisted the change from a half day to a full one, but the investment in lengthening the school day for kindergartens is a worthy one.

South Routt's Mader said the end of tuition systems for kindergarten in public schools is long overdue.

“The state should've been doing this a long time ago,” he said. “I'm really hopeful it succeeds as part of (Sen. Johnston's) bill.”

In addition to fully funding kindergarten at the state level, the bill, which still has not been officially introduced at the Capitol, is expected to seek major changes to how schools in Colorado are funded.

While educators in Steamboat are praising the part of the bill that could mean an influx of more than $200,000 to fund kindergarten, they still are concerned by other aspects of it, including a potential reduction in state funding because of their higher median incomes and property values.

Johnston's staff still is working to estimate the bill's financial impact on each individual school district.

The Steamboat Springs School Board is scheduled to discuss full-day kindergarten funding at a board meeting next week.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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