St. Paul continues to expand its programs for preschoolers

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2013 - 11:23 PM

Late growth adds 160 students to district classrooms.

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Preschoolers and a teacher at Eastern Heights Elementary School.

Photo: Flores, Elizabeth, Star Tribune

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A new year of preschool begins Monday in the St. Paul school district with more kids in more classrooms — and with four of its schools now operating all-day programs.

The expansion is the latest in a district that has made a habit of opening early-learning opportunities.

Already this year, St. Paul offered a new summer-school program for preschoolers. And twice in recent years, the district has persuaded voters to support additional funding for preschoolers and kindergartners, who also report to class for the first time on Monday.

In the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of the East Side, Rainbow Espinosa, a parent who has spoken of the benefits of preschool, now will see her youngest son catching a bus each day for the all-day program at Paul & Sheila Wellstone Elementary in the North End.

“He’s really looking forward to it — and that’s how you want your kids to go to school,” she said.

This year, the district plans to serve 1,380 preschoolers, up from 1,094 in 2012-13, a 26-percent increase.

The addition of the all-day program has been in the works for a while. Parents vied for those slots during school-choice season earlier this year. But a big part of the 26-percent expansion came late, when the district made a “calculated risk” last month to add new classrooms at four elementary schools. The move allowed it to open slots for 160 kids, most of them from its pre-kindergarten waiting list.

The district called the decision a risk because it wants to fund the new classrooms with proceeds from the state’s new pot of early-learning money — funding that, for St. Paul, is not guaranteed, said Lisa Gruenewald, supervisor of the district’s Office of Early Learning. Last week, the district still was awaiting word on its $1 million grant request. Gruenewald did not have details of a backup funding plan.

“The district is committed to opening those classrooms,” she said recently. “It will happen.”

As of last Thursday, St. Paul had a preschool waiting list of 730 children. Applications were being added almost daily.

A Wilder Research study has shown that students who enter kindergarten in St. Paul after having attended a district pre-kindergarten program were further along in reading, math, spelling and vocabulary than those who did not.

The expansion of early-learning opportunities also has made its way into talks over a new teachers’ union contract.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers has proposed making preschool available to every 4-year-old. The union argues that the state’s agreement to fund all-day kindergarten in 2014-15 should free up funds that city taxpayers now provide for that purpose. Use it for preschool, instead, the union says.

The district has countered that the local levy dollars would be insufficient for a universal program.

In addition, one administrator said, the district has made clear its intent to expand preschool options.

Espinosa spoke in favor of universal preschool during a negotiations session last spring.

She said that two of her older kids had positive preschool experiences, and that “to this day, when they see their pre-K teachers, they run up and give them hugs. They love them. They love them dearly.”

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