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Lindbergh continues to charge for kindergarten in Missouri

July 13, 2018

SAPPINGTON, Mo. (AP) — Like many other parents, Rachel Major moved to the Lindbergh School District in 2006 because she wanted good public schools.

Lindbergh, a slice of south St. Louis County where a typical home costs more than $200,000, is one of the highest-rated school districts in Missouri.

But when her oldest son was finishing preschool two years ago, she was surprised to learn that she would have to pay $3,500 for him to attend Lindbergh’s full-day kindergarten.

“Why are we paying tuition to a public school?” said Major, whose 5-year-old daughter will start full-day kindergarten at Sappington Elementary in August.

Lindbergh is the last school district in Missouri that charges parents for full-day kindergarten, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Lindbergh offers a free half-day program, which is the minimum that state law requires of public schools.

Some residents worry that the cost could prevent some children from getting a more substantial early education. The issue has spurred hundreds of comments among parents on Facebook, multiple opinion pieces published in a local newspaper as well as parent complaints to the Lindbergh School Board, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

“It just seems a little much to charge that much money per child to go to a program that is essentially offered free in every other district in Missouri,” said Lindbergh parent Steven Crawford, who will pay $7,000 for his twins to attend kindergarten this fall. He called for free, full-day kindergarten in a letter to the editor published last month in Call newspapers.

Lindbergh enrolled 329 full-day students and 161 half-day students this past school year. The district says it doesn’t have enough spots for everybody to attend full-day. But leaders say they turned no student away from the full-day program.

According to the district, English language learners get to attend full day for free.

Half-day kindergarten used to be the norm for Missouri school districts. It wasn’t until the 1990s that many Missouri districts began to switch to full-day.

Some research has shown that full-day kindergartners make higher academic gains than half-day students. Lindbergh kindergartners learn from the same curriculum, whether they attend half or full days.

But parents see it both ways.

Some think a half-day schedule makes for a gentler transition for their children from preschool to first grade. Other parents are convinced that a full-day schedule provides more time for learning social skills, in addition to academics.

“I don’t want my kids to go to half-day kindergarten, because they get a better education” through the full-day program, Crawford said. “It prepares them for going on to first, second and third grade, and I don’t want them to be behind.”

AnnaMarie Blumenkemper, a Lindbergh parent of six children and former Webster Groves teacher, said she had wanted to send all her children to the full-day program — especially one of her boys, who is now in elementary school and had trouble learning to read. But she said she couldn’t afford it on one income.

The percentage of U.S. kindergartners attending full-day programs rose to 77 percent in 2013 from 28 percent in 1977, according to Child Trends, a nonprofit research group.

In Missouri, suburban districts in St. Louis County, including Parkway, Kirkwood and Rockwood, have been the last to make the switch.

The latest district to switch was Webster Groves, which began offering free full-day kindergarten in 2016. It did so after a district official found that Webster Groves was losing out on more than $1.1 million in state funding because it was not offering free full-day kindergarten. The state allocates money to schools based on attendance hours, so districts receive more if their kindergartners are in school longer.

Lindbergh wouldn’t see as large a revenue boost from state aid, because it charges more in tuition than Webster Groves did. But it could essentially replace parent tuition with state money if it switched to free, full-day kindergarten, according to the state education department.

Outgoing Superintendent Jim Simpson has said the district couldn’t offer free full-day kindergarten because of a lack of money and space.

The district swelled by 1,000 students from 2010 to 2017, and it continues to grow. Lindbergh opened Dressel Elementary School last year and redrew attendance boundaries to alleviate crowding. Most schools in the 6,700-student district are still at about 90 percent capacity. Switching all kindergarten pupils to full days would probably mean hiring more teachers and finding more classroom space.

But the district’s financial explanations haven’t convinced all parents. Lindbergh had a 33 percent reserve balance for the 2017 fiscal year, which was higher than most St. Louis County districts. Many parents aren’t happy that Lindbergh agreed to spend more than $6.5 million on a new administration center for a few dozen district officials, even though the move freed up classrooms at Lindbergh High, where the administration used to be housed.

Simpson retired as superintendent on Saturday. District spokeswoman Beth Johnston said incoming superintendent Tony Lake would make the kindergarten issue a priority.

“As enrollment has increased in Lindbergh, our district has worked to balance a variety of needs that compete for new local revenue, including maintaining class sizes, hiring additional teachers to handle enrollment growth, and creating space for a growing student population,” Johnston wrote in an email. “Having said all that, funding full-day kindergarten is a priority, and the Board of Education is looking to study it seriously in the months to come.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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