Back to school — all day; Full-day kindergarten rolls out across the region

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AURORA | Aurora school districts have rolled out their full-day kindergarten programs, fulfilling a centerpiece plan by Gov. Jared Polis to save schools and parents money while giving children a head start across the state.

In Aurora Public Schools, the district will see reimbursement for an existing full-day kindergarten program. In Cherry Creek schools, full-day, free kindergarten will be new to a parents of a few thousand students.

Polis signed the plan into law in May, directing about $175 million of state funds to local school districts. Previously, many districts across the state did not provide a full day of kindergarten free of charge to area kids. Many who did passed the costs onto parents, making them choose between part-time programs or paying up to thousands of dollars a year to supplement kindergarten classes with childcare. 

While  every kindergartner in Aurora can now enroll in a full-day program without charge, the plans have different fiscal impacts. Officials from both school districts said it will be months before the actual economic impact of the programs becomes clear.

APS had already implemented free full-day kindergarten programs across the district, which covers most of the city. The program came at the expense of spending money on other district needs, officials said. 

They’re joined by Cherry Creek this week. Last year, six schools in that district provided full-day kindergarten free of charge to mostly low-income students. All Cherry Creek kindergarten-aged students at other schools could attend a free half-day of classes. Parents could also pay $3,200 a year for a half-day kindergarten enrichment program, that essentially provided daycare before or after a kindergarten session. 

Starting Monday, all Cherry Creek elementary schools will offer the full-day program without a charge to parents, spokeswoman Abbe Smith said. 

When pitching the statewide plan, Polis cited evidence suggesting children develop stronger social and emotional learning skills from getting a jump on their academic careers. 

“The data shows that kindergarten is every bit as important as first grade, fourth grade, fifth grade,” Polis told The Sentinel last week. 

Polis also said the state funding would take the program’s burden off of school districts.

That’s true for APS, though there is some uncertainty on the actual amount of money coming in from the state.  

That district will get almost $11 million in new revenue this school year with the state covering its full-day kindergarten bill, according to Polis. APS spokesperson Corey Christiansen said, however, the district estimates it will receive about $8 million from the state for the program this school year, but he emphasized that the number wasn’t precise. 

Even so, Christiansen said the district considers the new revenue as a check-book balancer, not a “savings” on district money it shelled out in the past. He’s not sure where freed-up district funds will be spent and said APS will conduct its usual budget process. 

“Now that the state will be fully funding full-day kindergarten, it’s not a savings to the district,” Christiansen said. “It means we can better cover the actual costs of offering full-day kindergarten.”

He added there likely aren’t any other kindergarten costs still uncovered by the state funds, which will also give the district “more flexibility to pursue other budgeting priorities, including in Early Childhood Education.”

In an interview with The Sentinel, Polis singled out the Cherry Creek schools as a district that could save much-needed education funding with his state program. He blamed cost barriers for what he said was previously low full-day enrollment in the district. 

“It was very hard for parents to squeeze out $300 a month with the high cost of living,” he said. “There were many who struggled to afford it.”

Cherry Creek schools, however, has spent about $5 million of its own funding, above new state reimbursement, on the nascent program, according to Tony Poole, the district’s assistant superintendent of special populations.

“There is not going to be any windfall whatsoever from full day kindergarten,” Poole said, adding the district only has an estimate of the cost burden. 

Poole oversaw the preparation for the program. 

That included buying dozens of kindergarten classroom material sets, hiring more certified kindergarten teachers and making new room for preschool students.

To make up for the funding gap, Cherry Creek schools applied for an additional state funding grant, but only received about $1.3 million dollars, according to Polis’ office. 

Even so, Poole said the program is a good initiative for the district. He wishes it would have been available for his own children.