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Cash-strapped schools eye full-day kindergarten

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Parents who want their children in full-day kindergarten could find it harder to find or more expensive as schools comply with a state order to slash millions from their budgets.

But many school systems in Indiana are trying to find ways to maintain the programs, or even start them, because of the benefit they bring to young learners.

"This is a tremendous opportunity with full-day kindergarten to build up skills students may not be able to receive if parents are unable to afford paying for preschool programs," said Merrillville Superintendent Tony Lux.

The state provides funding for half-day kindergarten programs and gives an additional amount for students in full-day programs. Those dollars are divided among all full-day kindergarten students across the state and aren't enough to support the full-day programs in most cases.

Many districts want to keep the programs and say they're considering increasing fees to do so. Merrillville charges $2,000 a year for full-day kindergarten, and Lux said that might rise next year; Center Grove in Johnson County is also considering increasing fees, and Eastern Hancock plans to charge families a $1,000 fee for its program for the first time.

Other districts are getting creative: Hobart will consolidate kindergarten classes into one school to make full-day kindergarten available at no cost. Instead, they'll fund the five-hour school day through grants.

Other districts, including Edinburgh, are considering eliminating the programs.

The challenges for school districts reflect a financial climate that has forced the state to shift away from what was a cornerstone of Gov. Mitch Daniels' education agenda when he first took office. State revenue has fallen millions short of even the most conservative projections, and school districts are looking for savings in every corner.

School officials say it's not unusual for interest in full-day kindergarten to change as a state's fortunes rise or fall. Emmett Lippe, interim superintendent for Center Grove schools, said he saw such a pattern repeat itself in Michigan while he worked there as an educator.

But proponents say the benefits outweigh the costs.

"It gives them a tremendous head start," Lippe said.

Those advantages are driving districts like Franklin and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson as they consider expanding their full-programs despite budget cuts.

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson, which now offers full-day kindergarten only to students from low-income families, is considering opening the program to all children. Parents who enroll their children would pay a fee to offset the cost.

The district currently has two full-day kindergarten classrooms with a total of about 30 students. Expanding could require adding teachers.

Superintendent Mark Millis said parents wanted the program, which would help improve children's reading skills at an early age.

Franklin also is gauging parents' interest before offering a full-day program available to all students.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett acknowledged the financial realities schools are facing. But he still hopes full-day kindergarten becomes a reality statewide someday.

"In this economy, obviously ... that's not a possibility," Bennett said. "As we see the economy rebound and see opportunities for funding avail itself, obviously that's something that will help all students in Indiana."

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