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State not fully funding all-day programs

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When first-graders arrived for their first day at Clark-Pleasant schools last fall, their teachers noticed a difference between them and their previous students.

The 6-year-olds, who spent last school year in full-day kindergarten, came to class knowing how to combine the sounds of letters, and they could recognize numbers.

That meant they were better prepared to start learning and mastering first grade reading and math lessons, director of curriculum and instruction Cameron Rains said.

Clark-Pleasant receives money from the state for every kindergarten student who attends its schools, though not as much as the state pays for first- through 12th-graders.

The school district receives $356 less for each of its 518 kindergartners than for students in the other grades, which totals a shortfall of more than $184,000, business director Steve Sonntag said.

Greenwood, Edinburgh and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools also don’t receive enough state funding to pay for teachers and cover the other costs of full-day kindergarten programs. Each of the school districts must make up for the difference themselves, typically either with federal funding or with other state dollars the school districts receive.

School officials want state lawmakers to consider fully funding full-day kindergarten, as full-day programs give students more time to develop strong reading, counting and other skills they’ll need in upper grades.

Having a full-day program for 5- and 6-year-old students also lets teachers see earlier what lessons students understand, and teachers can start providing more help for lessons children don’t grasp yet. The earlier a student starts practicing lessons that don’t come easily, the better chance they have at eventually mastering them, Rains said.

“The older students get, it’s not that it’s not possible. It’s just that it takes longer, and it’s harder work,” Rains said.

School districts receive money from the state for employees’ salaries and benefits based on the number of students attending their schools. For Johnson County school districts, that amount ranges from about $4,800 to $5,600 for every student in grades one through 12.

But Indiana doesn’t pay for teachers and employees in kindergarten classes the same way. The state provides half as much funding for kindergartners as for students in the upper grades. So while Clark-Pleasant and Greenwood schools receive about $5,600 for first- through 12th-grade students, they receive about $2,800 for each kindergarten student, Sonntag and director of fiscal services Todd Pritchett said.

Two years ago the state increased kindergarten funding, offering school districts trying to provide full-day programs a stipend of about $2,400. But that amount still isn’t enough to cover the entire cost for Clark-Pleasant, Greenwood, Edinburgh or Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools. Those school districts are between $22,000 and $184,000 short in state kindergarten funding and must make up the amounts themselves, school officials said.

State lawmakers didn’t consider changes to kindergarten funding this year. Gov. Mike Pence has been touting the benefits of early childhood education as he’s encouraged lawmakers to pass a bill creating a voucher program to help provide preschool to students from low-income families.

Before the state started helping pay for full-day kindergarten two years ago, not all local schools offered the program, and sometimes parents had to help cover the cost.

Franklin schools used federal funding it receives to help educate students from low-income families to cover the cost of the full-day program, and Greenwood did the same at two of its four elementary schools.

Center Grove and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson both charged parents for their full-day kindergarten program until the 2012-13 school year. If schools agree to accept the $2,400 from the state they can’t charge parents for kindergarten, and Center Grove now receives enough between the stipend and the state’s funding to cover the cost of the program, chief financial officer Paul Gabriel said.

Clark-Pleasant didn’t want to offer a full-day program unless every kindergartner could participate, and school officials didn’t believe parents could afford fees that could total hundreds or thousands of dollars each year.

Clark-Pleasant officials won’t know the long-term benefits of having a full-day kindergarten program for several more years. But each year school officials will track how many students are entering first grade with stronger reading and counting skills. Those numbers need to be improving each year, and if they aren’t school officials will dig in to find out why, Rains said.

“The goals don’t change. Your goals for the end of the year are to make sure kids have the skills to be successful in the next grade level,” Rains said.

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