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Free, Full-Day Kindergarten Begins for Minnesota Children

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The state of Minnesota is funding free, all-day kindergarten for the first time starting this year in an effort to provide an academic boost to low-income, special needs, and English-learner students.

About 54,000 kindergartners, or 95 percent of all kindergarten students, are expected to participate at a cost to the state of $134 million, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Most teachers support the program because it gives them more time to work with children who begin school behind their classmates when it comes to knowing the alphabet and other basics, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Bobbie Burnham, the director of early-learning services for the Minnesota Department of Education, told the Star Tribune, "we feel like all-day kindergarten could really be a game changer."

Less than half of poor children are ready to start school when they're 5 years old, according to a 2012 report by the Brookings Institution. 

"The good news is the kids who benefit the most are the kids who really need the benefit," said Kyle Snow, the director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Snow, who authored a 2012 report on how the differences among states and districts in kindergarten structure will affect learning goals under Common Core State Standards, said that based on reading and math scores, children in full-day programs learn more than children in part-day kindergarten, assuming that both are the same quality.  They also have better attendance, are less likely to be held back in school, and are better socially adjusted, he added.

"I really saw a huge difference in their writing samples," kindergarten teacher Renee Blue told the Star Tribune.  Blue, who is also the president of the Minnesota Kindergarten Association, said "the kids who were there every day for a full day were writing pages of words. Others weren't."

School readiness for 5 year olds.pngResearch is fuzzier when it comes to the long-term impact of all-day kindergarten. The benefits last at least into 1st and 2nd grades, said Snow, but then they fade.  It's not entirely clear why that happens but, "frankly, we see a lot of fadeout after that for all students," in the United States compared with other countries, said Snow.

There has been an increase in the number of children entering full-day kindergarten across the country and in the number of states offering it.  In 1984, only one state, North Carolina, required districts to offer full-day kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the States (ECS).  As of this March, the ECS found that 10 states and the District of Columbia require children to attend 4.5 hours or more of kindergarten a day. Another 14 states leave it up to individual districts to determine whether to offer part day, full day or both. 

As Snow found, the issue is gaining more traction in public policy discussions as states implement the Common Core State Standards, which don't distinguish between children in full-day or half-day kindergarten.  Although it's too early for any research findings on this question, Snow said he's "dubious" that the standards could be met in half-day programs.

It's even more complicated when you consider that only 15 states and the District of Columbia actually require children to attend any type of kindergarten, according to the ECS, and they don't all overlap with states that require full-day programs.

In Minnesota, for example, children don't have to enroll in school until they're 7 years old, and districts aren't required to offer full-day kindergarten.  The new regulations say that if a district provides a full-day program, the state will pay for it.

"If parents want full day and they're not in a district that offers it, they would have to talk to the school board," said Minnesota Department of Education spokesman Josh Collins.  "From the state level, we certainly would be encouraging that and hope to see every child in Minnesota have that opportunity."


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