Full-day kindergarten programs have been available in the local school districts for more than a decade, but often came with a steep monthly tuition fee. Starting this school year, those programs will be free to families in all Colorado public schools, thanks to a bill signed into law last May by governor Jared Polis that funds kindergarten at the same per-pupil rate as the other grades. For principals at Heatherwood and Niwot Elementary Schools, the move to make full-day schooling available to all students in Colorado is a welcome one that should start paying dividends almost immediately.
Fourth-year principal Genna Jaramillo admitted that there were a few bumps during Heatherwood Elementary’s transition to free full-day kindergarten, but the potential gains for her youngest students are worth it.
“Early intervention is what research shows really makes a difference,” Jaramillo said. “We’ve constantly struggled with trying to find the time these young kids need to learn, and when you give them a little bit more time in a full-day, we feel kids are going to leave kindergarten with a stronger foundation. And our first grade teachers should notice a difference where they’re not constantly having to go back and fill holes.”
For the past several years, Heatherwood’s full-day offering consisted of academics with one of those licensed teachers in the morning and enrichment activities with paraprofessionals in the afternoon, at a cost of several hundred dollars per month. Now Heatherwood Husky kindergartners will see their academic and specials times double, and the addition of time for “intentional play,” which will help solidify student learning.
“It’s just such needed time,” Jaramillo said. “Two-and-a-half hours to fit in all academics, specials, snacks, and recess, was just really, really hard. We really need the time to provide adequate education and time for them to soak it in without it being so stressful.”
Due to the timing of the bill, Jaramillo and her team had just a few days at the end of last school year to make some important decisions, including when to schedule training, orientation, and other important events. She also had to hire teachers to fill the new openings, but, luckily, she didn’t have to go too far to find the perfect candidates.
“We were really, really fortunate because we had two half-time kindergarten teachers who were ready to go full-time. So our teachers are the same, they’re just going to be working full-time now. We were lucky that we were able to fill those positions with highly-qualified current Heatherwood staff members.”
Reaction to the initiative has been uniformly positive, from both parents and staff, but Jaramillo has fielded questions about full-day readiness from anxious parents of very young kindergartners. Those families can still send their students for half of the day, the principal confirmed, but they risk missing out on important academic time.
“I think any time there’s anything new, people ask questions. The bottom line is that in Colorado, until you’re six, you don’t have to go to school, so if a parent chooses to take their kid out for a half day every single day, there’s really nothing legally we can do.”
Jaramillo credited Boulder Valley Schools for doing an “amazing job” of preparing for the new kindergarten framework, which made the implementation far easier than it could have been. She was especially thankful to assistant superintendent Robbyn Fernandez, who led the transition on the district level.
“We were at an advantage, because our district has done tons of research and has implemented full-day kindergarten at some other schools in our district. Since the people in charge of it were using a lot of research-based protocols, we have really, really strong programming prepared…. It’s a huge change to the system, and they have had a plan to roll with at the last minute, and I give kudos to them.”
Jaramillo is eagerly anticipating the changes a free full-day program will bring in student achievement down the line. Though Heatherwood didn’t see a big boost in enrollment this year (due to BVSD open enrollment rules), she expects to see more and more students entering school early starting in 2020.
“It’s something that’s proven to make a difference, and we’ve just needed funding to make it happen,” she said. “All in all, it’s been very, very welcomed in our community, and everyone is excited about the opportunity of having highly qualified education all day long by a licensed teacher.”
Full-day “wrap-around” kindergarten has been the norm at Niwot Elementary for at least five years, so principal Nancy Pitz couldn’t point to much that will be different on a day-to-day basis for kindergartners in the new tuition-free program. In fact, she said the only change most families will notice is their higher bank balance at the end of the month.
“The transition to full-day at Niwot looks very similar to what we’ve been doing. How we have it set up this year, is exactly the way we’ve always had it set-up, so it’s not a big change, but it allows more opportunities for additional families to take part.”
Pitz said that opening up better opportunities in early education is the key to better outcomes in the higher grades, and pointed to performances in her own building that bear her out.
“We’ve seen huge results from our full-day students going on to first grade. District wide, you’re going to see an increase in numbers of kindergarten students, and I think we’ll see increases academically as well as socially and emotionally.”
Niwot did see a significant increase in its kindergarten enrollment for the upcoming school year (to 77 from 63, or 20 percent), but whether this is due to new families moving into the area or a response to free kindergarten is unclear. However, it wasn’t the only “exciting” enrollment news for the school.
“It’s super exciting, because a large percentage of that growth is our residents,” Pitz said. “It’s our largest number of kindergarten residents enrolling this year in Niwot.”
Earlier this year, Pitz, Sunset Middle principal Anthony Barela, and Niwot High principal Eric Rauschkolb participated in a discussion with the Niwot Community Association about keeping area families within the local school feeder system, and Pitz said it appears that those efforts are paying off.
Pitz also commended St. Vrain Valley district officials for being “proactive” and working to ensure a smooth transition across the district.
“It’s such a positive thing for our kids. Early education is so important, and if you can give kids more opportunities to build that foundation, it’s always a wonderful thing.”