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KUNA — Twenty-six happy 5-year-olds are buzzing with excitement in their kindergarten classroom at Reed Elementary School.

All 26 of them improved on their monthly reading scores this month — an achievement their teacher, Alyssa Townsend, helped them celebrate with confetti and prizes.

“They love being here,” Townsend says with pride, as the students work busily around her. “All day, every day isn’t a challenge for them.”

Kuna schools began offering full-day kindergarten to all students three years ago, after worrisome declines in readiness when the youngest students arrived at school. The full-day program has gotten rave reviews from parents and teachers and led to big gains in student learning.

Similar results are being reported all around the state, but Idaho funds only half-day kindergarten, not full-day. So school districts are patching and scratching together funding from their general funds, supplemental tax levies, early literacy funding and more to make it work; some, including Boise and West Ada, are charging tuition to parents. Currently, according to state Department of Education figures, 88 of Idaho’s 115 school districts and 34 of its 67 charter schools offer at least some full-day kindergarten option.

Two GOP lawmakers, Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, and Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, have introduced a bill to have the state pick up the full tab for all-day kindergarten as an option statewide, at an annual cost of up to $42.1 million. The hope is to enhance student achievement, relieve pressure on property taxes, and provide a more equitable system than the current patchwork, which leaves some Idaho families with access to full-day kindergarten but not others.

Crabtree said Idaho’s schools are “living off of property taxes” under the current school funding system, relying on voter-approved supplemental tax levies to cover portions of their basic operations. “That’s not working out well for rural Idaho,” he said.

“At the same time, one of my school districts reports more than 80% of students are not prepared for first grade,” he said. “Statewide, it’s 60%. So clearly, we have to do something.”

The two lawmakers’ bill, HB 331, was introduced in the House Education Committee on March 11, where the committee chairman, Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, strongly supports it, but it hasn’t yet had a hearing. Crabtree said a new version is in the works, and was scheduled to be introduced on March 22, a Monday, when the Legislature abruptly shut down the Friday before due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Clow was among those out with the virus.

The new version, Crabtree said, will tap federal coronavirus aid funds to cover the new expenses for the first two to three years. The latest round of federal aid funds, approved in late December, allow states through 2023 to spend hundreds of millions in federal aid.

The new version of the bill also will make clear that school districts could no longer pass supplemental tax levies to fund kindergarten, Crabtree said, to make sure “that the shift is a fact.”

“How do we solve the property tax issue and help our children be prepared?” he asked. This proposal, he said, is part of the answer.

The Kuna School District is currently using its entire state allocation of early literacy intervention funds, along with some supplemental levy funds, to underwrite its full-day kindergarten program. The literacy funding is roughly $200,000 a year, but it fluctuates, as districts are allocated those funds based on the number of students who test below grade level on the Idaho Reading Indicator test. “So it’s hard to plan for a program like this,” said Wendy Johnson, Kuna superintendent. “It was a risk.”

She worries that as the area continues to see explosive growth, the literacy funds won’t keep up with the need.

Before the shift, Kuna was offering an every-other-day kindergarten schedule with its half-day funding. “It was really super-hard on our youngest children,” Johnson said. Students attended either Mondays and Wednesday or Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus every other Friday.

“It wasn’t convenient for anybody,” said Kevin Gifford, Reed Elementary principal.

But neither was an a.m./p.m. schedule, with kindergarten in the mornings or afternoons, Johnson said. In Kuna, most parents work, and 90% of Kuna residents commute to jobs elsewhere, making mid-day kindergarten pickups and drop-offs difficult.

Jim Foudy, superintendent of the McCall-Donnelly School District, said his district first started offering full-day kindergarten as an intervention program for at-risk students in 2005. At first, people worried that 5-year-olds couldn’t handle being in school all day, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., but those worries were quickly put to rest. Foudy said the district had purchased mats and blankets to allow for a nap time mid-day, but “nobody was taking naps.”

“They wanted to play, they wanted to go outside and exercise, they wanted to continue their work with their teacher,” he said. “Any concerns that we had were assuaged.”

Foudy, a former principal who’s been superintendent for the past six years, said the district discovered that the full-day program allowed far more teaching for the kids, without the rush of trying to fit all subjects, from reading and math to social studies, science, art, music and PE, into a rushed half-day.

“It’s a different model in a full-day experience, that allows children to be children and teachers to teach,” he said.

McCall-Donnelly decided to offer full-day kindergarten as an option for all its families in 2017-18. “Then we learned that 100% of the families are taking advantage of that,” Foudy said. “Today all of our families are choosing to come full day.”

Foudy said when he talks to his colleagues around the state, “There’s no regrets.” He routinely hears, “As soon as we tried it, it worked.”

West Ada, the state’s largest school district, currently offers full-day kindergarten at 24 of its 32 elementary schools, but charges parents $280 per month tuition. At several schools, it’s so popular that a lottery system determines which students get in.

The tuition covers most of the costs, but this year, the district also had to kick in money from its general fund, said Char Jackson, district communications officer. About 700 students are enrolled right now.

“We’ve been doing this for 17 years,” Jackson said. “Back then, it started with three schools and we’ve grown to 24.”

If the state began funding full-day kindergarten, Jackson said, “It would take the burden off parents having to pay for it, obviously, and then it would expand our program to all of our elementary schools.” West Ada currently offers no financial aid for families that can’t afford the tuition.

In the Boise School District, 20 of 32 elementary schools offer full-day kindergarten, with costs covered by a combination of district funds and tuition fees of up to $250 per month, charged on a sliding scale. Dan Hollar, district spokesman, said the Boise schools support full state funding.

In Caldwell, Superintendent Shalene French said, “We have had full-day kindergarten for every kindergarten-age student, and we started it last year when we received the additional literacy funding.” Prior to that, three of Caldwell’s six elementary schools offered full-day kindergarten, through a patch-and-scratch combination of “massaging budgets to try to put it into place.”

That included one school where staff agreed to have larger class sizes in upper grades in order to use one of the school’s teaching positions to cover full-day kindergarten.

“It was piecemeal, but we were going to do whatever it took,” French said. “Then Gov. Little came out with additional funding, which was like an answer to a prayer.”

Caldwell currently spends about half its literacy intervention funds on full-day kindergarten, but that still covers less than half the cost, with other district funds being tapped to make up the rest.

“It’s a little precarious situation,” French said. “If the literacy money goes away, we have to change what we’re doing.” It’s something of a “vicious circle,” she said, because literacy funds go up when students are failing; when they’re succeeding, the funding drops, based on test scores. “It’s not sustainable when it comes to children’s learning,” she said.

But the results in her district were stunning, she said. Looking at reading scores, “We were surpassing by winter where we had ever been in the spring from previous years.”

Allison Westfall, communications director for the Caldwell and Kuna schools and a member of the Nampa school board, said, “Early learning is so important. It’s a great time. Kids are little sponges, and they learn so quickly. The more time we can get them with qualified teachers, the better.”

Nampa schools are now funding full-day kindergarten districtwide with state literacy funds and some supplemental levy funds. “It was really exciting to be able to expand that with the literacy dollars,” Westfall said. “It had been a priority, and we were looking at ways to expand it.”

Christianne Lane, director of professional development for the Lee Pesky Learning Center, a Boise nonprofit that works to overcome obstacles to learning, said her organization works with 15 to 20 Idaho school districts each year to improve their kindergarten programs, and the key is improving quality of the teaching, not just the quantity. When students arrive at school with gaps in their achievement level, she said, “We know from the research that the earlier you can close the gap the better. … Once these kids get behind, closing the gap is that much harder.”

“It’s definitely worthwhile to fund all-day kindergarten, as long as teachers are truly trained in how to deliver high-quality instruction,” she said.

For Townsend, at Reed Elementary in Kuna, the shift to full-day kindergarten has allowed her to bring young students who arrive not able to hold a pencil or use scissors up to a level by spring where they are reading and writing full sentences. With a single class of 26 students rather than two full classes, she’s also able to engage with the students’ families.

“We have time,” she said. “We have 90 minutes for literacy instruction, 60 minutes for math instruction, and still have time for science and social studies and social skills, because social skills are really important.”

The full-day program also allows time to differentiate instruction to students’ specific needs, she said, from the struggling learners to the highest-performing.

Townsend is in her 18th year of teaching, and her 10th as a kindergarten teacher. “I’ll be here till I retire,” she said. “This is my home; it’s where I belong.”

She’s taught other grade levels, she said, but the reward of kindergarten is “how much you see them grow.”

“I would say funding all-day kindergarten for all students gives every student a fair, equitable chance to be on a level playing field, to start successfully … to go through their education,” she said.

French, the Caldwell superintendent, said, “Right now, we kind of live year-to-year based on the literacy funding.”

If the Legislature approved funding for full-day kindergarten statewide, she said, “I would do cartwheels.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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