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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 31 2013

All-day kindergarten a big draw in Moorhead

MOORHEAD – The Moorhead School Board’s decision to start all-day kindergarten this fall appears to have paid off.

As of Friday morning, the Moorhead School District had 492 kindergartners registered for all-day classes, with just three families choosing to send their children for traditional half-day classes, Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said.

That means the district will open school Tuesday with 22 classrooms of kindergartners.

District staff estimated in May that kindergarten numbers could jump to 475 students with all-day kindergarten, but Kazmierczak told the school board it would be wiser to set aside extra classroom space.

Turns out, he was right. A 10th kindergarten classroom was added early last week at the Probstfield Center for Education.

Robert Asp and Ellen Hopkins elementary schools each have six full classrooms of kindergartners, Kazmierczak said.

“We more than doubled our teaching staff at the kindergarten level,” he said.

The mystery is where enrollment will top out as late students are signed up after Labor Day.

At Ellen Hopkins, kindergarten teachers Carrie Arness and Megan Hilleren were sharing tips for handling the first day of school as Hilleren set up her room.

Arness said the Moorhead School District’s late influx of kindergartners has made life interesting.

“I wish I could just wear a T-shirt that says, ‘Have you registered for kindergarten?’ ” she said.

Hilleren promised that teachers will have no problem filling the day with learning for the kindergartners.

“The truth is, we were trying to cram so many things into a half day. Kindergarten has changed. It’s more like first grade now,” Hilleren said.

Move to pay off

In May, Gov. Mark Dayton approved an education budget that provided $134 million to pay for free all-day kindergarten options during the 2014-15 school year for all of the state’s public school districts.

The Moorhead School Board then signed off on spending $1.2 million to start all-day kindergarten for the 2013-14 school year, a full year before state funding would start rolling in.

Through the last school year, Moorhead public schools offered half-day kindergarten at no charge. Families had the option of paying up to $1,200 a year for the Kinder Plus program, an optional half-day kindergarten program that is now discontinued.

Superintendent Lynne Kovash expects the move to all-day kindergarten to pay off in improved test scores, particularly for children in low-income families.

“I think it’s important for their learning,” she said. “It really gives them that head start that we haven’t been able to offer. I think we’ve seen in districts across the nation that all-day kindergarten works for students.”

It’s important for students to be able to read well by the start of third grade so they don’t get left behind in their studies, Kovash said.

Third grade is the first year Minnesota does comprehensive student testing, and Kovash said the district’s students lag in the test scores.

“I think some of that may be attributed to not having all-day kindergarten,” she said.

Tide of students

Kovash said registration for all-day kindergarten hasn’t been without hiccups.

On June 1, the program had 379 students registered. By mid-July, it was up to 411. At the end of July, it was about 420, Kovash said. On Aug. 15, registration was up to 436 students, and then the tide of students really began to roll in, she said.

“I’m starting to understand how West Fargo feels,” Kovash said, referring to the western metro city that has seen a tremendous housing boom and growth in public school enrollment in recent years.

At the Probstfield Center, Alicia Ryland had a stepladder in hand Friday and was busy hanging curtains on the windows and in front of shelving units in her new kindergarten room.

Ryland was hired as a preschool program teacher in mid-August. On Tuesday, her kindergarten teaching career was jump-started when she was hired to teach an all-day class.

“I’ve spent a lot of time here” shaping up the classroom, she said. “I feel much happier.”

So far, Ryland has 20 students. She hosted them at a back-to-school night she put on especially for them Thursday.

“I’m excited. Very excited for the year,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583