Summer school was nearing its end at Global Arts Plus in St. Paul, and just down the hall from the principal's office, 17 preschoolers sat in a circle on Tuesday listening attentively to teacher Deana Moore.

Moore asked each of them what made them the same or different from other people. Penelope Rush, wearing a black-and-white striped dress, said: "My cousins are bigger than me."

This fall, Penelope will be moving on to kindergarten — and in the process, staying put in the state's second-largest school district.

As birth rates slide and the school-choice marketplace tightens, St. Paul's public schools aim to enroll and hold onto every student they can get, and in the district's view, the competition begins in preschool. The push to boost preschool offerings coincides with a growing state investment in such programs.

To understand the stakes involved, consider: In 2022-23, the city of St. Paul had 51,819 school-aged children, down from 55,796 in 2017-18. And as the number of kids drops, so does the share of them enrolling in the district. Just 60% of them attended St. Paul Public Schools in 2022-23, compared with 64% in 2017-18, according to a district analysis.

Superintendent Joe Gothard has made it a priority to get children in the pipeline sooner, building connections with families to stabilize enrollment as well as address another strategic goal: "Kindergarten readiness," he said in a recent interview.

In 2022-23, St. Paul had a total of 1,470 preschool seats — each free, full-day and occupied. The district had 800-plus families on a waiting list in January.

Contrast that with suburban districts, which typically offer half-day programs at a fee, and the Minneapolis Public Schools, which in 2022-23 had 941 preschool students. On Thursday, a Minneapolis spokeswoman said 86% of the seats came at no cost to families. But many also were unfilled and answers were not available this week as to why.

'A huge difference maker'

Quality preschool has long been championed by business leaders. A statistic from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis holds that for every dollar invested in quality child care or preschool programs, society receives $16 in benefits.

For years, the state has offered early learning scholarships to low-income families so they can access quality programming, but the total has stood at $70 million annually. This year, with the support of advocacy groups like Think Small, lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz agreed to raise the funding to about $196 million a year in 2023-24 and 2024-25.

Lori Erickson, who oversees preschool programming for St. Paul Public Schools, said the scholarships have helped fund eight of the district's pre-K classrooms per year.

"It is a big deal and a huge difference maker," she said.

She added the new scholarship money is not expected to pay immediate dividends for St. Paul. But the district recently announced a new partnership with Head Start that will help fuel an expansion to 1,590 free, full-day seats in the coming school year.

Four new classrooms are set to open at three elementary schools — Eastern Heights, EXPO and Highwood Hills — with instruction provided by the district's licensed teachers and paraprofessionals, and with assistance with other needs supplied by Head Start.

Recently, Erickson said, she received a call about a family moving to St. Paul from Ethiopia who are non-English speakers and operating on a tight budget. How much would it cost for a 4-year-old to enroll in pre-K? she said she was asked.

"I've got the greatest answer for you: It's free," Erickson replied.

The family also is moving near EXPO and, as such, will work with Head Start advocates for help with food, housing and medical-dental resources.

Getting ready for kindergarten

This fall, the district also is launching a fee-based, half-day "Nature Discovery" pre-K program for up to 80 students at St. Anthony Park Elementary School.

But the district's preschool forays have not always gone as planned.

In December 2021, the school board voted to close Galtier Elementary and replace it with an early learning hub designed to serve families from birth through preschool — angering some of the Galtier faithful.

Many of the hub's first-year preschoolers, however, were pulled by parents from the new facility when slots in community schools opened, Erickson said.

A summer school program once designed to give kids who never attended preschool a taste of daily school life before kindergarten was paused this year — in part because many of those children went on to attend a non-SPPS school.

The kids at Global Arts Plus on Tuesday were students who attended preschool earlier and who were thought in some cases to be in need of a little extra classroom time.

Erickson, who was on hand for the teacher's conversation with students, said she was impressed. Kids new to school, she said, can go off topic quickly. If asked a question like that posed Tuesday — about similarities and differences — they may talk about tater tots instead, Erickson said.

"Here, they were focused. They clearly heard the purpose for listening and learning. They were [speaking] in complete sentences. That's kindergarten ready," she said.

And Penelope? She's on her way to kindergarten at Randolph Heights Elementary, and happy about it.

"I can walk there," she said.