St. Paul is on a quest to improve education by training more resources on the youngest students, and its all-day kindergarten offerings -- a crucial part of that effort -- could hinge on a school levy up for renewal by voters on Nov. 6.

All-day kindergarten already is the standard in the city, with funding made possible by the $30 million voter-approved levy, which the district wants to expand to $39 million to pay for technology upgrades.

The full-day program is a strategy aimed in part at erasing the achievement gap between white and minority students, a gap that Mayor Chris Coleman this month called the biggest threat to the community's well-being. The more that schools, the city and other efforts could focus on younger kids, "the more successful we can be," he said.

A group pushing for the referendum's passage has raised $129,445 so far, according to campaign finance reports, and the levy has the support of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

An opposition group led by St. Paul Republican City Committee Chairman Greg Copeland also has formed, but has yet to file a campaign finance report beyond a statement of organization listing $100 in assets.

Meanwhile, in the heart of the city, the Promise Neighborhood initiative is working to help children and families all the way from the cradle to college, partly through scholarships for poor families to send their children to highly rated preschool programs. The state is finalizing the details of that program while officials await word on an additional $5 million per year federal grant to help implement the broader initiative.

Funding for all-day kindergarten and preschool programs is a key part of the $30 million annual levy that has been in place in St. Paul for six years. In a survey funded by the district this year, nearly 75 percent of those polled said they would vote to renew the levy if its defeat would lead to reductions in all-day kindergarten and preschool programs.

James McClean, public affairs director for the St. Paul Area Chamber, said Tuesday that "creating a strong pipeline for a globally competitive workforce is one of the key priorities of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and our members."

In its official communication with residents, the district has not specified what programs would suffer if the referendum fails, only that cuts would be dramatic. In the same brochure, officials noted that students who participated in full-day kindergarten had performed more than 4 percentage points higher on third-grade reading and math tests than classmates who did not attend kindergarten in the district.

In a statement on the St. Paul Republicans website, Copeland criticized school board members and Superintendent Valeria Silva for combining the $30 million levy renewal and $9 million in technology funding into a single ballot question, saying voters should have more choices in hard economic times.

Expanding all-day kindergarten in Minnesota is a hot topic. Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton pushed for $33 million to fund full-day kindergarten for low-income students statewide, but could not win legislative support. A similar proposal now is before a statewide task force exploring ways to improve school funding.

At a recent task force forum in Roseville, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said all-day kindergarten and preschool programs could make a difference for students of color.

Starting early

At Maxfield Magnet School, one of two elementary schools in the Promise Neighborhood, staff members say the effect of bolstering programs for young kids is evident.

The kindergartners in Room 1105 have grown accustomed to breaking into small groups to build math skills. Last week, one cluster consisted of students comfortable with numbers 1 to 3, another of children with a handle on 1 to 6 and a third that was "solid with numbers 1 to 10," teacher Jenelle Krech said.

Thirty minutes later, she was in the middle of the room, shaking a tambourine, signalling the start of a lesson for the entire class. Were it half-day kindergarten, she said later, she would have time only for those full-class lessons. The smaller groups, she said, "allow me to dig in deeper."

Minnesota was one of nine states to prevail in competition last year for federal Race to the Top early childhood funding. The $45 million, four-year grant can be used by families to pay for child care and early education services in the Promise Neighborhood as well as in Itasca County, the White Earth Indian Reservation and the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis. Local leaders are waiting on the state to outline the scholarship process, which includes use of a rating system to shop for providers.

The Promise Neighborhood comprises a 250-block area in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods. According to Nancy Stachel, principal at Maxfield, 95 percent of the school's students qualify for free lunches.

Krech has 24 students in her kindergarten class. About one-third, she said, attended the preschool program at Maxfield. On average, Krech added, they are stronger with numbers and letters, and their families were more likely to have attended conferences before the school year started. The students also tend to be more outgoing and assertive. One girl with no previous school experience "has yet to speak in class," Krech said.

There are challenges. As of last week, seven students could not yet identify which part of the book was the cover.

Stachel said she could not imagine closing the achievement gap without all-day kindergarten. She watched as Krech lined up her students, neat as can be.

"Imagine," the principal said. "What if I were preparing these kids for the bus to go home?"

According to the teacher's schedule, they still had a library visit and some handwriting time ahead of them.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036