NEW ULM - As District 88 mulls the latest round of budget cuts, its relatively new all-day every-day kindergarten program is back in the spotlight.
Can the district save money by changing back to half days? More importantly, is it the right thing to do? These questions are being pondered by administrators, the school board and teachers alike.
District 88 implemented the current full-day program in the fall of the 1999-2000 school year, Superintendent Harold Remme recaps.
The initial year, one section of half-day programming was maintained.
Only full-day programming has been offered since.
The kindergarten staff has modified previous curriculum and instructional methods to reflect the extended allotment of time, Remme notes.
Anecdotal evaluation comments - collected annually from parents, kindergarten teachers and first grade staff - have been very positive about the full-day experience, Remme says.
First grade teachers report that students are better prepared for academic rigor. Social and behavior adjustments also improved.
The full-day program provides more time to spend actively engaged in child-initiated and small-group activities, Remme adds. The extra time is especially beneficial to high-needs students.
National studies link full-day programs to academic readiness improvement in both reading and math - with the greatest improvement in math. (Perhaps, educators speculate, while parents of young children read to them at home, they do not necessarily explicitly teach the children math skills.)
On Remme's request, students in the transition year were tracked by the District Academic Coordinator of Excellence, Tami Sens. However, out of the 17 students in the half-day program in 1999-2000, only six remained in the school system by fifth grade. This turnover rate - which Sens says is not that atypical of classes as a whole - made a meaningful comparison of academic success difficult.
Assuming a class of 145 students, in seven class sections, the full-day program costs about $350,000 in teacher salaries, Remme says.
Conversely, the program saves money on transportation - because the children do not have to be transported to their homes or daycare at mid-day.
A half-day program, then, would save $175,000 in teacher salaries - but it would raise back transportation costs.
"Much depends on exactly where everyone lives" but, judging from past experience, two, three, or even four, bus routes may need to be added back, says Remme.
With each route priced at $40,500, the additional transportation expense could be $81,000 to $162,000.
As a result, the district would net savings in the $13,000 to $94,500 range - more likely around $53,000 - if it cut back.
Anecdotal comments are overwhelmingly in support of full-day kindergarten - despite it being statistically difficult to prove, Remme sums up.
Also, a curriculum revision would be necessary if the program goes back to half day, he notes.
One, though not crucial, side benefit of moving back to a half-day program would be making three more classrooms available for other uses at Jefferson School.
Perhaps, Remme suggests, officials should not outright discard an out-of-the-box option - an all-day, every-other-day program. This alternative - which would result in kindergarten staff becoming part-time - would potentially save $140,000, with no impact on transportation costs.
Neither administrators nor the school board have unequivocally signalled their leanings on program change.
Some kindergarten teachers, though, point out another aspect - the "competition" for students.
With strong private schools in town - which have instituted their own full-day programs, albeit following the public system's lead - full-day kindergarten is seen as a selling point.
Said a teacher:
"You can't imagine how many parents come to our open house sitting on the fence. We can by no means assume that they'll send their children here, just because they came to the open house. Many parents are shopping for a school."
The current promotional video shown at District 88 kindergarten open houses emphasizes the benefits of a full-day program.