All-day kindergarten now also free at UnderwoodPublished 11:17am Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Underwood School recently announced plans for free all-day every-day kindergarten starting next year. This comes within a few weeks of Fergus Falls School announcing the same thing. Are there kindergarten wars afoot, with schools vying for students?
“I won’t say Fergus wasn’t a factor, but free kindergarten was already on our radar,” said school superintendent Dr. Jeremy Olson. “We don’t see ourselves competing with Fergus, our focus is on the kids.”
Olson said the main reason was one of helping families.
“While we’ll still have Monday, Wednesday, Friday kindergarten, most families used part-day kindergarten for financial reasons,” Olson said. “We’re removing that barrier.”
Making kindergarten free will take a bite out of the school’s budget, but Olson said Underwood is able to make the change without taxpayer support.
“This is a piece of revenue we won’t have next year,” Olson said. “The past few years we’ve had a positive fund balance, so the district is able to absorb the cost. There is no operating bond, and we’ve been really careful about spending.”
The school positive fund balance is also due to increased enrollment. Underwood School enrollment has seen an increase of nearly 22 percent over the past 10 years, while Fergus Falls has seen a decrease of nearly 23 percent in the same time period. Because school revenue is tied to enrollment, an increase in enrollment means a corresponding increase in school district revenue.
While some enrollment changes can be attributed to district demographics, Underwood also attracts students because of the benefits of being part of a smaller school.
“We don’t want to lose our niche as a small school, and it’s important to keep class sizes small,” Olson said.
Olson added that the school operates on a three RRR’s philosophy — Rigorous academic coursework; Relevant learning opportunities; and meaningful Relationships with instructors who are qualified to help students achieve high standards.
According to research prepared in 2013 for the National Conference of State Legislators, the rigor of challenging instruction and support for each student to meet high standards improves high school graduation rates and whether a student will continue to college, a variety of relevant learning opportunities prepares students for adult jobs, and students perform better when they are in schools where they have a personal relationship with a caring adult.
Underwood School currently has two kindergarten classes, each staffed with a teacher and a paraprofessional.
On Thursday, teacher Leslie Setterholm’s kindergarten class was rotating through different learning modules in small groups. One group of students each had an iPod, which they were using independently with reading and spelling apps.
“They think they’re playing a game, but they’re really learning using technology,” Olson said, adding that it is a goal to be a one-to-one school, with all students in all grades having access to similar technology, not just the ones from families that can afford it.
Even though the school is operating in the black, Olson said funding is his greatest challenge.
“It’s difficult to plan when state funding is so vague,” Olson said. “The Governor’s budget proposal does not keep up with the cost of living.”
As students high-five and greet the superintendent all the way down the hall, it’s clear Underwood School is a place that gets to know and cares about students.
“The relationships students build here are priceless,” Olson said.