Extra state aid for kindergarten mixed blessing

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SEATTLE -- Highline school-district administrators were determined to provide free, full-day kindergarten at all 18 of its elementaries when the school year starts Wednesday.

So over the last school year it converted six computer labs to classrooms.

It installed five portables.

And to find still more space, it shifted some students who thought they'd be attending one school to other campuses with a little more space for their grade level.

"We just made it happen," said Anne Arnold, the district's new director of preschool through third grade.

In June, state lawmakers increased funding for free, full-day kindergarten by nearly $50 million to more than double the number of such classes offered in the state. The money is distributed according to poverty rates, going first to schools with the highest rates of kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

In all, the state is spending $96.2 million to fund all-day kindergarten at about 44 percent of the state's elementary schools. A state Supreme Court decision has charged state lawmakers with making all Washington kindergartens full-day by 2017, part of a directive to meet its responsibility to fund basic education.

But because the new state money can't be used to fund capital projects for new classroom space, putting it to use has brought logistical and financial challenges in some cases.

Last year in the Highline district, the state funded all-day kindergarten at eight elementary schools; the new state money is making it possible at seven others.

To help find space for all the new classes, the district squeezed nearly $2 million from its own budget to buy the portables.

But at least one school district — Mukilteo — turned away its share of new state money. Its schools are already overcrowded and it doesn't have the money to add space for those students, let alone open the doors to additional kindergartners.

"That's one of the aspects that is often overlooked. It's great to provide money for all-day kindergarten," said Andy Muntz, spokesman for the Mukilteo district, which passed up $1.6 million in new state funding. "But you need classroom space for it, and that puts this issue back in the hands of local voters."

At Seattle Public Schools, the new state money has expanded full-day kindergarten from 19 of the district's 68 elementary schools to 27.

All 68 elementaries offer all-day kindergarten, but it's free only at the 27. At the other 41, parents whose children don't qualify for free or reduced-price lunch must pay about $3,000 a year if they want their child in full-day kindergarten, said Cashel Toner, the district's director of early learning.

Because the Seattle district already has the space in place for full-day kindergarten and has planned for future growth, Toner said it will be able to take full advantage of additional state funding when it does come though.

The Highline district didn't want to wait for still more state funding before offering full-day kindergarten districtwide, Arnold said. So along with shifting some students and adding the portables, the district invested an additional half-million dollars to fund all-day kindergarten teachers for three schools not funded by the state.

"It may not be ideal," Arnold said. "But we think it's going to make a huge impact."

Much has been said about the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten, but for many working families with small children, it means a financial break as well.

That's the case for the family of 5-year-old Francisco Quin, who met his new teacher last week at a meet-and-greet at Cedarhurst Elementary in the Highline district.

Francisco's mother, Herlinda Quin, works at a sushi restaurant in downtown Seattle to help her husband support their family of five children, including 13-year-old Cecilia Quin.

"She wouldn't be able to work as many shifts as she could if it wasn't all-day," Cecilia said on behalf of her mother, who does not speak English.

Arnold said one father who came to register his child in full-day kindergarten recently said that when he got to pick up the deposit he'd put down for day care for his child, he felt like he'd won the lottery.

But Arnold thinks the biggest impact will be that more children will be developmentally ready to take on the more rigorous academic challenges of first-grade.

With a half-day kindergarten, teachers say they can teach a little math and reading, but not much else — no science, no art and only 15 minutes of recess play to help the children build social skills.

"You just can't fit it all in," said Cedarhurst kindergarten teacher Mary Drew.

It's harder to inspire children to become independent learners with the rushed pace of half-day programs, says Jennifer Matthews, who teaches kindergarten at Southern Heights Elementary in Burien.

"It used to break my heart when these kids would only use a pair of scissors four times — four times in a whole year," said Matthews. "And a lot of these kids don't have any of these supplies at home."

At the Cedarhurst meet-and-greet, Washington Tauanuu, 6, talked about how excited he was about starting first grade after going to all-day kindergarten last year.

His expectations were high."I like learning about people, animals, skeletons, bears and fish," said Washington. "I want to see my new classroom!"

Scenes like that don't make it any easier for the Mukilteo School District.

"Did it hurt to turn all that money away? Oh yeah," said Muntz.

"We definitely fully understand why it's important that kids have full-day kindergarten. We just don't have the class space."

In 2008, the district tried to prepare for anticipated growth, but a bond measure to fund more school building failed. Muntz said enrollment has grown by 550 students since then — 150 more than predicted.

Now the school board is considering putting another bond measure on the February ballot.

"We've added 17 portables in last five years," Mumtz said. "It provides classrooms, but not more core facilities. We still have the same lunchroom, bathroom and library for all these kids. That's the dilemma."

As flexible as the Highline district has been in finding room for kindergarten classes this year, Superintendent Susan Enfield said space is just about maxed out, and that to accommodate growing enrollment, Highline, too, will soon have to consider a bond measure.

"We can buy more portables, but they aren't a long-term desirable solution," Enfield said. "We've repurposed computer labs to become classrooms, but we're probably getting to a point where we've done as much of that kind of thing as we can."