Betsy Chastain will pay $3,000 this fall for her son Miles to attend full-day kindergarten at Hale Elementary in south Minneapolis.

On principle, she believes it should be free.

"I feel sick about this. This puts me in a spot where I feel like I'm paying for a private education," Chastain said.

Diana Curtis has no problem with the cost. She intends for her 4-year-old daughter, Morgan, to go a full day at Hale.

"Knowing that we would have to pay for day care already, this was a no-brainer," said Curtis, who noted that day care is much more expensive.

Parental demand has prompted Hale to become the first Minneapolis public school to offer full-day kindergarten for a fee.

With this pilot program, known as "Kindergarten Plus," Minneapolis joins large suburban districts such as Anoka-Hennepin and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage in offering fee-based kindergarten classes.

In St. Paul, voters passed a property tax levy that pays for all-day kindergarten.

About a third of the state's 350 districts offer full-day kindergarten either free, by pay or by a sliding fee scale, said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

He said there's an effort across the country to put more resources into early education whereas kids can be "reading ready," and teachers can accelerate instruction by introducing letters, words and other concepts sooner.

If Hale's program is successful, Minneapolis would likely consider it at other schools with students from medium- to high-income households, said Jackie Turner, Minneapolis Public Schools' student placement director.

State and federal funding currently pays for full-day kindergarten at nearly two-thirds of the district's elementary schools, Turner said, including all the schools on the North Side.

Parents are willing to pay

The Minneapolis program has drawn enough interest that nearly 80 families outside Hale's boundaries have put their soon-to-be kindergartners on a waiting list, Principal Bob Brancale said.

"It's a very wanted commodity," he said. "We're looking very good at this stage. I think we called it right."

There will be some sliding-fee scales for the program, Brancale said. He said kindergarten students eligible for free lunch will attend full-day classes for free. Kindergartners who qualify for reduced lunch will pay $1,500.

The $3,000 cost for full-day kindergarten at Hale is comparable to fees in nearby suburban districts such as Hopkins ($3,400), St. Louis Park ($3,725) and Wayzata ($3,164).

As many as 78 students -- enough for three full classes -- could participate in Hale's full-day-for-a-fee kindergarten. Currently, the school offers four free half-day programs and one free all-day kindergarten class, with the 26 students chosen through a lottery.

Earlier this year, many Hale parents told school and district officials that they would be willing to pay for full-day kindergarten at the school. The district surveyed parents by phone and found interest was high, Turner said.

"We had a number of requests from [Hale] parents asking, 'Is there a way we can make this work?'" Turner said. "If they said, 'No way,' then we wouldn't have gotten this far."

Hale's initiative comes just as the Minneapolis district announced it has received 2,367 requests for kindergarten programs for the next school year. Most of the queries have come from the north and northeast sides of town, where many families have opted to send kids to charter or suburban schools.

The kindergarten requests are about 330 more than at this time last year. The district had expected losses of about 1,600 pupils resulting from a projected $13 million budget shortfall next year.

"We see the increase as a positive sign," Turner said, citing the district's ongoing attempts to reconnect with city families.

Hale's full-day-kindergarten-for-pay will eliminate the school's lottery for free all-day kindergarten option. It has upset some parents, but also pleased others willing to pay.

"It's a matter of supply and demand," said Curtis, treasurer of Hale's PTA. Her oldest daughter, Madison, 6, currently attends all-day kindergarten at Hale. "We won't know until a year from now if it's successful or not."

Gretchen Tuck is torn. Her two oldest sons attended Hale but she's debating whether to pay $3,000 for her youngest son, Vance, to attend full-day kindergarten there. She's concerned about class size and is considering a private school.

"I haven't made a decision yet," Tuck said. "If they don't cap the class size to 26 students, I'm going to have problems with that."

Most obvious advantage

The most obvious advantage, Brancale said, will be that the curriculum will be taught at a pace where teachers and students can revisit lessons. Students will be with the same teacher all day, and kids will be served breakfast and lunch, he said.

"Kindergarten is way different from when I went to school," Brancale said. "With [the federal] No Child Left Behind [law] and the pressure to perform well on tests, it's much more academically rigorous.

"It's not all learning through play like it used to be."

The announcement about Hale's pilot and its cost came in late March. That upset some parents who already made their top three choices on where to send their kids to school two months earlier.

"The timing could have been better," Brancale said. "I do understand why some are angry."

For Chastain, the mother of two boys, a new car will have to wait. She said she and her husband are putting away at least $300 a month to pay for kindergarten.

But she believes pay-for-full-day kindergarten classes at Hale will work. Her older son, Henri, 7, was one of the lucky lottery students who participated in all-day kindergarten there last year.

"He walked into first grade this year strong and confident. And, with the academic expectations, I felt he was more prepared," Chastain said.

Her neighbor Kari Sterling though said her family eventually decided not to put 5-year-old daughter, Ella, in full-day kindergarten. Instead, Ella will take a half-day class at Hale.

Charging for full-day kindergarten at a public school is crossing the line, Sterling said.

"Although I have the resources, I think it's unfair," she said. What happens when a family commits to this plan but has to pay their mortgage instead? Will they get kicked out if they can't pay?"

Brancale said each family's situation will be handled individually.

Meanwhile, Chastain vows that she will become a voice for families who aren't financially fortunate.

"It makes me think, 'Is this the way it's going to be now?'" Chastain asked. "Are we going to have to start paying for social studies? Math?"

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790