Public schools follow the market, pitch all-day kindergarten

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

It's a working parent's dream - kindergartens competing to take your children off your hands all day, and the promise that they'll learn something, too.

In Arizona, a state with a booming senior population and dwindling pockets of families with small children, a marketing tug of war has erupted over who will get to educate Arizona's future.

Competition for students has always existed between public and private schools. But open enrollment, home schooling, and a growing number of charter schools have widened parents' choices, and now public schools are facing one of their biggest competitors yet - themselves.

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For Arizona's traditional public schools, the offer of full-day kindergarten represents a preemptive-strike opportunity: Hook parents before they opt for a charter school.

That's not the overt motive, of course. All-day kindergarten has been on the rise nationwide, driven by a growing focus on the academic benefits of early education. But a plethora of marketing tools send a clear promotional signal: slick videos, websites, movie-trailer ads, a cable-access television show, and even a two-week "kindergarten academy."

"Parents have [more] choices," says Harriet Scarborough, Tucson Unified's senior officer for professional development and academics. "There was always the possibility that if we eliminated full-day kindergarten in one of our schools, and a charter school nearby did offer full-day kindergarten, parents [would] opt for the charter."

The battle to attract and keep students is raging fiercely in Arizona, which consistently ranks 50th among states in public per-pupil funding. In efforts to reverse that trend, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano recently signed a bill extending $25 million in full-day kindergarten funds to 130 of the state's poorest schools.

The effort is rippling across the state, with some districts so intent on introducing and promoting full-day programs that they are adopting what may seem like drastic measures. Several schools in Tucson have consolidated under one principal to find additional funding. Another school in Tempe created a marketing department with a $400,000 budget to spread the word about their program.

The heightened focus on all-day learning is proving to be a huge draw for parents. In Tucson, Jennifer Willey is typical of many who want an educational head start for their children. If the public programs hadn't offered full-day kindergarten when her daughter began school, "we would certainly have checked out alternatives, including charter schools," Ms. Willey says."It was a big consideration for us."

Parents can face difficult choices in areas where both public school districts and charters have full-day kindergarten. While charters might emphasize a curriculum favored by parents, there is often a cost. For Ms. Willie, it came down to money. At the charter school she contacted, only half-day kindergarten was free, while fees for each full day were about $10. "Over a month, that starts to add up," she says.

Still, to retain parents like Willey, the financially strapped Tucson Unified School District must spend $6 million annually for all-day kindergarten. In recent budget negotiations, the district placed all-day kindergarten on the chopping block. But parents protested and the motion was withdrawn.

From a learning standpoint, educators welcome the opportunity to lengthen and develop lessons that an all-day schedule provides. If classes were only half-day, "we wouldn't have time to do anything really meaningful," says Tucson kindergarten teacher Laura Soto, as her class rushes out for morning recess after learning new words and a bit of geography. "They wouldn't even have time for recess, because I'd always be ... trying to fit things in."

Expanded opportunities for mastering new skills is particularly important in states such as Arizona, where the number of non-English speaking students has surged in recent years. Children who start learning early "have a much greater chance of becoming successful in English than if [learning] starts later on," says Fred Brown, associate executive director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

If anything, the heightened competition bears the promise of increasing the quality of education and across the board. In metropolitan Phoenix, for example, when one district began offering full-day kindergarten, other districts felt compelled to do the same in the hopes of attracting newcomers to the rapidly growing city.

Across the country many districts are fighting to retain and boost full-day programs even as budgets grow tighter. Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest, voted to expand full-day kindergarten programs. Maryland school systems are mandated to have full-day kindergarten by the 2007-2008 school year. And in Oklahoma, Gov. Brad Henry has pushed an initiative to fund $114 million for a school-improvement initiative that includes all-day kindergarten.

But despite the heightened marketing effort among public schools to draw students many contend that the benefits of all-day kindergartens are far reaching.

"Kindergarten is when we set the foundation" for children, says Ms. Scarborough. "And having a full day gives us an opportunity for language development, and time to explore subjects in more depth. It's an opportunity for students to receive twice the amount of intellectual engagement."

Districts throughout Arizona that don't yet offer full-day programs are eager to do so. This spring, several Phoenix-area districts will ask voters for additional funds. Other districts strive to make their programs even more attractive, such the as one in Mesa that offers summertime "kindergarten academies." The two-week program helps get children ready for the fall by teaching them basic skills such as penmanship and how to form lines.

Still, there is a gap between districts which can afford to offer all-day programs - let alone high quality ones - and those that cannot without painful cuts in other areas. "Affluent communities don't have to make these kinds of choices," says Mr. Brown. "So there's a discrepancy that begins to grow between the affluent and less affluent school districts."

But even cash-strapped districts must sacrifice to keep their all-day kindergarten programs alive. For example, Tucson Unified has retained all-day kindergarten, but will now cut the number of teachers and make class sizes larger.

At Borton Primary Magnet School, principal Terry Melendez, who will now oversee a second school whose principal has been let go to save funds, believes that discriminating parents won't settle for less. She recalls when the district first offered all-day kindergarten in the 1970s. "The waiting list was a mile long," she says. "Parents were begging to be let in, because they felt it was necessary for their children."

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