Academy School District 20 opened enrollment this week for tuition-free, full-day kindergarten beginning in August, deciding not to wait on Colorado lawmakers who are considering funding it statewide.
The Pikes Peak region’s second-largest district — one of few local districts to charge parents for all-day kindergarten — has been weighing the idea for a while, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gregory said.
“It’s been a longtime goal, and now with interest at the state level, it seemed like the perfect time,” he said. “Everything is pointing in the same direction, and it’s the right thing to do for kids.”
The development caught the attention of Gov. Jared Polis, who on Thursday will stop at a D-20 school, High Plains Elementary in Briargate.
In preparation for the governor’s visit, kindergartners hung signs in the school library Wednesday.
“The children are very excited to meet the governor,” said Principal Craig Stevens, adding that tuition-free, full-day kindergarten will be “an incredible benefit to our children and our families.”
The idea was one of Polis’ campaign promises in his November bid for the governor’s seat. With two weeks left in this year’s session, a proposal is moving through the General Assembly.
As part of a 100-days-in-office tour, Polis and Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera will meet with High Plains kindergarten students and have a discussion with staff, students and families about his proposal.
He also visited elementary schools in Colorado Springs District 11 and in Cheyenne Mountain District 12 in January. Those districts have been offering tuition-free, full-day kindergarten for years.
The state funds 58 percent of public school kindergarten, with districts making up the difference by using general operating funds or property tax revenue, charging parents or not offering full-day sessions.
A House bill that would provide about $175 million in tax dollars for 100 percent funding for public school districts statewide cleared the House Appropriations Committee on Friday and passed the House on a 53-11 vote on Tuesday. The Senate is now considering it.
As the issue gained steam, a D-20 workgroup studied the concept and recommended moving forward with a plan, district spokeswoman Allison Cortez said.
“The educational benefit to students and the financial benefit to parents outweighs the risks that may be associated with amended or defeated legislation,” she said.
Academy D-20 parents pay $1,900 a year for full-day kindergarten. The cost for students from low-income families is $1,000 or $500.
The youngest of Heather Henneman’s four children will enter kindergarten at a D-20 school in the fall.
“Allowing parents to make an informed decision, without a financial impact is a powerful tool for families to have,” she said. “I’m also excited about doing a few of the house projects we put on hold to pay for our son’s school.”
Two of her children attended half-day kindergarten and one went to full-day classes. The difference was noticeable, Henneman said.
“My son was more prepared for the transition to first grade because he was experienced in going to school for the entire day,” she said. “Our girls were academically prepared for first grade, but it was a bit of a learning curve to figure out lunch, and they were exhausted for the first month or two of school.”
D-20 collects approximately $900,000 in kindergarten tuition, Cortez said. If the state supplies that money next school year, D-20 likely will use it to pay for start-up costs of the program.
“Unlike many of the other local districts, we have never funded tuition-free kindergarten, so if it passes, it will not be extra dollars for us but simply backfill the dollars to fund this initiative,” Cortez said.
Enrollment is open through May 31, including for choice students — those who live outside D-20 geographical boundaries but want to attend a D-20 school, Cortez said. Children must be 5 years old on or before Oct. 1 to enroll for the fall semester.
Classrooms will have a maximum of 25 students per teacher, with two to three classes at each elementary school.
Parents will pay a nominal fee for supplies, Cortez said, which will vary by school.
D-20 expects to see an increase in kindergarten enrollment, which this year is 772 students for half-day and 942 for full-day classes, according to the district.
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