The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District should significantly expand its preschool and kindergarten offerings to keep up with growing need, but space constraints and funding pose significant obstacles to making that happen, according to a task force that studied the issue.

Julie Olson, director of elementary education, presented the task force's findings to the school board last week. Specific recommendations include offering additional programs for 4-year-olds and free all-day kindergarten, along with providing more programming at the district's early childhood centers.

"We have to pay attention to early learning to a degree we haven't before in the district," Olson said.

Just 6 percent of the district's incoming kindergartners have participated in a district-run school readiness program for 4-year-olds, compared with 20 to 50 percent of students in neighboring districts, Olson said. That doesn't include children who attended a private preschool or day care.

Those with higher incomes are more likely to send their kids to preschool, Olson said. That's part of why Olson believes the district should prioritize early learning opportunities for kids living in poverty and English language learners, both growing groups in the district. Such programs "pay remarkable dividends" because the majority of brain development happens before age 5, she said.

Early programming can reduce achievement gaps, which already exist by kindergarten and tend to grow wider without intervention, she said.

The district offers four early-childhood programs through community education, said Khia Brown, community education director. Those include Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) and Bridge to School programming, which provides preschool for kids who "need a little boost before they start school," Brown said.

There's also an ELL-focused program, Family School and Kindergarten Plus, which provides optional all-day kindergarten for $3,400 a year, Brown said, with scholarships available.

And this year, Echo Park Elementary began offering Penguin Preschool, a pilot program for 4-year-olds.

Brown, who was on the task force, said there are many reasons that relatively few families are using the district's early childhood programming, including transportation issues and awareness.

But one of the biggest barriers is space, Olson said. She cited long waiting lists and a recent survey of families with kindergartners in which 72 percent said they would be interested if their school offered preschool.

The district's early childhood centers are full, and the most logical sites for adding early childhood programming — elementary schools with higher poverty levels — are also the most crowded, Olson said.

Although the school board is supportive of the recommendations, there are significant barriers, Olson said. "It's very obvious to all of us that there are obstacles," she said. "And those are funding and space."

School board member Rob Duchscher noted that budget constraints are always an issue: "These are great ideas, but you've still got to pay for it."

Some districts use money from their general fund for early childhood education, Brown noted, but Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan doesn't.

And while it appears the Legislature may fund all-day kindergarten, Brown believes that alone isn't the answer. "We don't feel like one or the other is the ticket. It's really a combination of early learning and all-day kindergarten," she said.

On a positive note, next year the district will offer half-day preschool for 4-year-olds at Westview and Oakridge. That money will come from existing funds, including the school's Title I and compensatory aid, state money given to schools with higher poverty levels, Olson said.

The other recommendations will have to be addressed later, Olson said, but laying out a commitment to early learning is a start. "We know we've got a lot of work to do to move forward," she said. "It's imperative that we begin to take our obligation to our littlest learners more seriously."