AURORA – Five-year-old Skyla Davis proudly carries her homework folder in her pink backpack. Her big brown eyes sparkle like her brand-new white school shoes.
She and her kindergarten classmates at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora are natural learners, excited as they count to 81 with their teacher and dig their hands through Play-doh and math manipulatives.
“That’s the most exciting thing about kindergarten,’’ said Skyla’s principal, Quinn O’Keefe, as he watched the buzz build on a recent Monday afternoon. “You can see them learn in a moment.”
Kindergarten offers educators an extraordinary opportunity to hook children on learning and launch them on a path that could change their lives.
That’s why Aurora Public Schools leaders say they’re investing $2.6 million each year from the district’s 2008 tax increase to fund free full-day kindergarten for all children.
Kindergarten in Colorado
- A 2005 law required school districts to offer kindergarten. To pay for it, the state provides half its annual per-pupil funding for grades 1-12.
- State law does not require children attend kindergarten – they can start with first grade. The compulsory age of school attendance in Colorado is 6.
- A 2008 law boosted funding by 8 percent so districts now receive 58 percent of per-pupil funding for kindergarten – the intent was to phase in full-day funding for all.
- The recession has thwarted plans to add $10 million each year to full-day funding through 2013-14. Cuts now make that unlikely in the foreseeable future.
The full-day program started this fall and doubles the school day for hundreds of children. In the past, lotteries determined which children would win coveted spots in full-day kindergarten classes among the district’s 34 elementary and K-8 schools.
Full-day kindergarten is not mandatory or funded in Colorado and many school districts offer only half-day programs. Some offer full-day programs but charge tuition while others cobble together other funds to support a full-day option.
Prior to tapping the tax funds, Aurora used some federal Title I grant money to ramp up its full-day kindergarten program. Last year, 2,285 children were in full-day programs while 689 participated in half-day classes. This year, more than 3,300 children have registered so far for full-day.
At Laredo, all kindergarten students used to attend half-day programs before 2005. Five years ago, Laredo started using Title I funds to support full-day kindergarten. In the 2005-06 school year, the school funded one full-day program and four half-day classes. Then the school started having two half-day classes and two full-day kindergartens.
Children who attended half-day classes used to be at school for just under three hours. Now, the school day is extended to 6 ½ hours for all students.
‘Parents want it, state doesn’t pay’
O’Keefe, the school’s principal, used to hear constantly from parents who wanted more school time for their young children.
“Most parents were knocking on our door saying, ‘I want full day,’ ’’ O’Keefe said. “They didn’t understand that the state doesn’t pay.”
O’Keefe said full-day programs are critical to the low-income families he serves.
“Parents want full-day for the academic advantages, but it will also save them $400 a month in day care,” he said. “Many of our parents are working two and three jobs.”
At Laredo, 85 percent of children qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, an indicator of poverty. Districtwide, the figure is 71 percent.
Trailer parks and low-income housing cluster along Colfax a block north of the school. Fifty-five percent of Laredo’s students are English Language Learners.
For these children, school is not just a place to polish skills. Students who do well could earn a ticket out of poverty. A sign over the school’s front door reads: “Gateway to College.” And teachers here like to remind students that for them, college begins in kindergarten.
Yet it can be hard to project to college when many children come to school woefully unprepared for rigorous academics.
“We have kids come to us who don’t know what the letter “A” is or what the color blue is,’’ O’Keefe said. “The challenge for our teachers is to take kids who come in behind, elevate them to proficient and keep them there.’’
So far, full-day kindergarten appears to be helping.
Full-day kindergartners outperform half-day
Aurora educators last year compared children who were in full-day kindergarten with those in half-day programs. On a commonly used reading assessment for younger students, children were considered to be on-target if they hit a benchmark of level 3 by the end of kindergarten.
Growth in kindergarten
- In fall 2009, 64,190 children were enrolled in kindergarten across Colorado. That’s up 27 percent since 1999 and 42 percent since 1989.
- Full-day kindergarten is expanding rapidly. In 2009-10, 60 percent of 64,190 kindergarteners were enrolled all day. In 2005-06, 28 percent of 59,398 kindergartners were full-day.
- In a 2008 survey of school districts, 104 reported offering full-day to all students and 42 were offering full-day to some students.
- Colorado children are attending school earlier. Preschool enrollment in fall 2009 was 29,701 – up 782 percent over fall 1989.
Throughout the district, 64 percent of the children in full-day kindergarten hit the target, while 51 percent of the half-day children were reading at level 3.
At Laredo, the results were even more striking. Since the full-day program started in 2005, an average of 71 percent of students were either proficient or advanced in end-of-the-year benchmark tests. Just 51 percent of children who attended half-day programs showed proficiency.
“Right away, the full-day kindergarten outperformed the half-day,’’ O’Keefe said.
William Stuart, Aurora’s chief academic officer, is keenly aware of achievement gaps between low-income students and English language learners and their peers from higher-income families, who typically come to school fluent in English and ready to learn.
“Achievement gaps start at the earliest ages,’’ Stuart said. “Time is the variable that really impacts student learning. Having kindergarten children in school full days helps eliminate gaps before they start.”
Stuart said the district does not yet have longitudinal data to show whether children who attended full-day kindergarten retain the boost and continue to outperform their peers in later years. But he and other district officials are convinced the investment will pay off.
“Over time, it’s going to pay dividends in narrowing elementary achievement gaps and having far more kids at grade level,’’ Stuart said.
Big dreams begin with kindergarten
At Laredo, O’Keefe said longitudinal trends are positive. Children who attended the school in full-day kindergarten programs out-performed their classmates who came later by an average of five percentage points on state reading exams.
“Five additional percentage points on a CSAP year to year is significant for us,” the principal said.
For 5-year-old Skyla Davis and her family, Laredo is a refuge from life’s chaos. Skyla’s dad, Larry Davis, concedes he’s been checked out for much of Skyla and her little sister’s life.
“I was addicted to crack,’’ Larry Davis said. “Rather than have it affect them, I sent them to live with my wife’s mom so I could grow up myself.’’
Davis was homeless at times, but said he’s been clean for a few months now and relishes picking up Skyla from school. The family is living with his parents while Davis tries to find work and get his life together.
Both father and daughter love kindergarten.
“Personally, I think full-day is great. There’s more discipline, a better education,” he said. “You get them interacting with other children from an early age. And she learns to respect her elders.”
Davis brushes Skyla’s head as he talks, passing along his hopes to her.
“I settled for a GED and joined the Army,” he said. “I would like her to go to college. I’d like her to fill the shoes and dreams I never did.’’
Sources for statistics, funding: Vody Herrmann, assistant commissioner, Colorado Department of Education; CDE enrollment data; Colorado Revised Statutes; 2008 district survey.