Another milestone is about to occur for thousands of East Valley parents. It’s time to find the perfect kindergarten for their 5-year-olds. And school districts know it.
Some bait the parent hook with offerings of “extended day” instruction. Others tout a rigorous curriculum. Some tug at the heart strings.
A Tempe Elementary School District ad for free full-day kindergarten shows two adult penguins sheltering a baby penguin — and the slogan, “We understand it’s difficult to let go.”
Kindergarten roundups for the next school year have already begun in some districts, while others start later this month and in March.
Free full-day kindergarten is a popular lure in schools that qualify for full-day state funding and in districts that have passed budget overrides to fund the extra hours of instruction themselves.
“It’s an attraction for parents to select a school district that has this program,” said John Baracy, superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified School District. “Then parents remain in the school district.”
About six years ago, when Baracy was superintendent of the Tempe Elementary district, he used full-day kindergarten to reverse that district’s declining enrollment — and bring more state funding into its schools. But he is quick to point out the benefits are not just to the bottom line.
“We know that the greatest learning of a child is between the ages of zero and seven, so it’s crucial” to provide expanded learning opportunities, Baracy said.
When he became superintendent of Scottsdale schools, another district with stagnant enrollment, Baracy again championed full-day kindergarten.
Last year, voters approved a $3.4 million budget override to fund the program — and the district has seen kindergarten enrollment grow substantially. In January 2005, the district had 1,661 kindergartners enrolled. That number increased by more than 200 students this school year.
“The kids are here all day with certified teachers and not being rushed through the curriculum,” said Cathy Rivera, Scottsdale’s executive director for elementary schools and excelling teaching and learning. “It’s given (the students) time to expand and master kindergarten skills and prepare for first grade.”
Other districts face the challenge of attracting parents by emphasizing smaller class sizes and a “rigorous” curriculum, as is the case in the Mesa and Gilbert unified school districts. Full-day kindergarten is an option in both districts, but in most of their schools, parents pay for it.
Kindergarten tuition for one year is $2,340 at most schools in the Gilbert district and a lottery is used to fill spots because of the program’s popularity, said Dianne Bowers, Gilbert district spokeswoman.
In Mesa, only seven elementary schools, primarily serving low-income families, offer fullday kindergarten at no charge, but neighborhood children are enrolled first. Parents can also choose to enroll their children in an extended-day kindergarten program at $225 per month.
Mesa and Gilbert districts also allow students who turn 5 between S eptember and December to participate in free half-day classes for younger kindergartners. At the end of the school year, the teacher decides if the student is prepared to move on to first grade or another year of kindergarten.
The Apache Junction Unified School District offers some full-day kindergarten sessions, but not enough to meet growing demand. District officials plan to meet soon to discuss future funding possibilities for more full-day classes.
“In the more competitive market with charter schools and private schools, there are definitely parents who will go to those when their (district) schools don’t offer (full-day kindergarten),” said Apache Junction district spokeswoman Betty Swanson.
As with school districts, some public charter schools offer free full-day kindergarten, while others charge parents for the second half of the day. For instance, Bright Beginnings School, a Chandler charter school, offers full-day kindergarten for $200 per month.
Officials in the Tempe Elementary district say they frequently see parents requesting boundary exemptions to enroll their children in free full-day kindergarten classes.
Full-day kindergarten “coupled with (the district’s rigorous) reading program, really helps children succeed faster than many of their peers,” said district spokeswoman Monica Allread.
Jamie Sistek of Scottsdale says she probably would have taken her child to a school in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, which passed an override to pay for free fullday kindergarten, if the Scottsdale district hadn’t also gone to a full-day program this year.
“A half day . . . isn’t long enough to get the academic skills they need on a daily basis,” the mother of two said.
More than five years ago when her son, Dylan, was in kindergarten, Sistek paid extra for an extended-day kindergarten program offered by Zuni Elementary School.
“He loved it,” she said. “He would come home saying Spanish words. . . . He even wanted to go to the afterschool program.”
Choosing the right kindergarten
Billie Enz, early childhood education director of Arizona State University’s College of Education, says there are many things parents should consider when searching for a kindergarten. Most important, visit a school. Enz says parents should watch for several things during their visits:
• Observe how the teacher and children talk together. Does the teacher talk with the children easily and listen respectfully?
• Does the teacher have good classroom management? The classroom shouldn’t be silent, but also shouldn’t be wild.
• Is there a daily read-aloud time? Is the teacher excited about reading to the children and encouraging them to respond?
• Do children learn letters and words? Quality kindergartens weave letters into a wide variety of activities.
• Does the classroom have learning centers for children to learn and reinforce instruction? Examples of centers include classroom libraries, science, math or writing centers for children to practice skills.
• Is the link between home and school valued? Children learn best when their parents and teachers work together. Look for classrooms in which teachers have ways of communicating with parents regularly, such as newsletters or notes.