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Despite costs, complications — and meltdowns — Colorado school districts power through full-day kindergarten

Parents are embracing the new option, championed by Gov. Jared Polis, even if their young ones can be a bit hesitant to head to class

Gwendolyn Tippy thinks about her lesson as she sits in kindergarten class at University Elementary School, 6525 W. 18th St., in Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Jennifer and John Jones gave a sales pitch to Jazmyn, their youngest daughter, a few weeks before her world would change. 

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Yes, full-day kindergarten at University Schools in Greeley would be an adjustment. But Jordyn, a second-grader, would be there, too, and she would even have Ms. Nolke, the same teacher Jordyn had. 

They would go to the school library, where she could check out books. She would play on the playground with other kids. And on Fridays, she would have pizza, and not only that, Mommy would be in her classroom volunteering that day, just in case she needed a little extra TLC. 

It seemed to work. Jazmyn was excited to be at school all day. And her parents were excited for her. 

Like many parents across Colorado, the Joneses were grateful for Gov. Jared Polis’ initiative to bring free full-day kindergarten to public schools across the state. University offered three full-day classes this year, something they couldn’t do without the extra funding the initiative provided, administrators said. 

And then the bell rang.

“The counselor had to pull her away from us,” John said with a sigh. “It was horrible, seeing your girl reach out for you, and you have to walk away.”

Jazmyn melted down three times a day. Nearly two weeks after the start, Jazmyn had her worst meltdown yet, screaming when that cursed bell rang though she knew her teachers were monsters. Teachers reassured John and Jennifer that every kid goes through this.

“There was a kid in Jordyn’s class, and we would all say, ‘Oh, she’s crying again,’” Jennifer said. “We were grateful that that wasn’t our kid. And now that’s our kid.”

Jazmyn Jones runs to hug her mom, Jennifer Jones, in the hallway of University Elementary School in Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Even districts that said they couldn’t offered full-day K this year

The transition appears to be going more smoothly for school districts that this year added or expanded full-day kindergarten offerings. 

Some were ready for the change. Like many elementary schools in Greeley-Evans School District 6, University last year offered one full-day class to meet demand from parents, and once Polis was elected, sped up the timeline to offer more. 

 “We had it in the works anyway, but that prompted us,” said Sherry Gerner, director of schools for University Schools, a K-12 charter campus in west Greeley.

The class helped University work out the kinks, but there were costs and complications that came with adding two more full-day sections, including ordering furniture and hiring an additional teacher.

All that, along with hiring a paraprofessional educator, cost an extra $75,000, but the school anticipates a bigger chunk of state education funding because full-day kindergartners now count as full students.

Last year, 78% of all students of kindergarten age attending Colorado public schools were in a full-day class. Many of those parents paid tuition. The number of full-day kindergarteners enrolled this school year will be officially counted at the end of October. 

A spokeswoman for Polis’ office said nearly 99% of Colorado’s 178 districts said they would offer free full-day K, even those that initially expressed concerns about being ready this year, such as Weld RE-4, the district serving Severance and Windsor. 

State lawmakers approved $185 million, about 80% of the funding Polis requested, because they reasoned some parents wouldn’t enroll their kids in full-day programs, even if they are free. Districts that haven’t made the switch have time to transition to full-day instruction. 

Principal of University Elementary School, Michael Mazurana, leans in as he helps Jazmyn Jones with her lesson during kindergarten class. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The push resulted in some perks for kids and professional advantages for their teachers.

“The kids can finally eat lunch,” University Elementary School Principal Michael Mazurana said with a laugh. “They will get to talking with friends and just taking it all in, and we had to remind them that they needed to be eating.”

Mazurana said teachers pushed the idea of full-day K as much as University parents did.

“Teachers can get deeper into subjects with the kids,” Mazurana said. “They have wanted this for a long time.”

Free full-day instruction was an equity issue for Cherry Creek

Cherry Creek School District, which takes in a broad swath of the southeast metro Denver area, offered full-day kindergarten at its six Title I schools, defined by their high concentration of students from families living in poverty. 

The classification comes with federal funding that helped cover the cost of full-day programming for the youngest students. At the rest of the schools, the district offered an “enrichment” program, essentially a full day of school, for an additional fee. That additional half-day wasn’t taught by a teacher, and yet, participation was high.

Cherry Creek now offers full-day kindergarten to all students, and every parent who wanted their kid enrolled got in. That was clearly something parents wanted, said Abbe Smith, chief communications officer for Cherry Creek Schools. 

“We’ve been on board with this idea from the beginning,” she said. “We think it will help students be better prepared for first grade. It’s nice to be able to offer it to everyone. That’s really important.”

Officials in the Windsor-Severance district are dealing with explosive enrollment growth, a reflection of the region’s growth in general. That put a strain on the district’s ability to provide classroom space for full-day classes, Superintendent Dan Seegmiller said in an email.

“As we look ahead to future years, capacity will continue to be a challenge for our district,” he said. “We would certainly like to get to the point where we have the space to accommodate every request for full-day kindergarten.”

MORE: Colorado’s kindergarten landscape will even out, with benefits flowing to state’s wealthiest, poorest families

Last year University, the Greeley charter school, had 92 kindergarteners, 20 of whom were enrolled in full-day classes. This year 60 are in full-day kindergarten and 36 are in half-day. More than 150 parents didn’t get their kids in, but that’s not unusual for University, which has a long waiting list for its elementary, middle and high schools. 

Full-day kindergarten students at University get instruction in art, music, Spanish, sign language, electives that vary by day, and physical education daily The half-day students don’t get art, although the school does try to make everything else equal. Full-day students don’t get more curriculum, but they do spend more time on it. 

University Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kellee Nolke helps her student Paxton Reynolds with a project. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There have been pleasant surprises as the University students get used to a full day at school, which includes a half hour when they can watch a movie, read, nap or color. 

“We thought they might struggle throughout the day,” said Cora Halmo, University Elementary’s assistant principal, “and they do poop out, but they’ve done pretty well, too. It hasn’t been as bad as we thought.”

The school year has gone well enough that Gerner said University may add a fourth full-day class as soon as next year.

In the meantime, there are signs that the growing pains are easing for everyone, and that includes Jazmyn, even after her nuclear-level morning meltdown. Her mom, Jennifer, had a pleasant surprise of her own when she came to pick her up from school that afternoon. 

Kellee Nolke, the kindergarten teacher, told Jones that for the first time, Jazmyn had not cried after lunch.

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