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Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton schools to offer all-day kindergarten for free

Aiden Juntunen, left, and Benjamin Lund spend the last few minutes of their day stacking polygon blocks Monday in the kindergarten class in Dilworth.(Dave Wallis/The Forum)

GLYNDON - The Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District will start footing the bill for all-day, everyday kindergarten next fall in a bid to narrow the achievement gap between students whose families could afford the current paid program and their peers.

District leaders said the switch is a great investment, even at a time when the district faces some budget cuts. Superintendent Randy Bruer is confident the move, which will cost the district about $160,000 a year, will pay off in higher student achievement and less need for costly remedial work.

"It seems like our achievement gap is growing larger instead of smaller," he said of D-G-F, whose Hispanic students failed to make progress under No Child Left Behind last year. "In order for us to get every kid on board, we need to expand our early learning."

The district now offers state-funded half-day kindergarten and an extended-day program that costs about $1,250 a year per student. Only 20 percent of kindergartners participate in the extended program, which fills up fast and attracts students from neighboring districts with half-day-only kindergarten.

In January, amid concerns that the district is losing students to all-day-K programs in neighboring districts, Moorhead launched a fee-based afternoon lineup of kindergarten activities. On Monday, Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash noted that her district's new program has fees as low as $538 a year for students who qualify for free lunch as well as need-based scholarships.

D-G-F parents applauded their district's move. Ann Johnson, a single mom of three in Dilworth, said the fee for her daughter would have put a strain on her budget. Besides, getting into the extended-day program involved lining up as early as 4:30 the first morning of registration.

"It was set up for the middle-class, married family," Johnson said. "Now I feel it's much fairer."

Brooke Belka, a mom of three from Glyndon, said her family, squeezed by the economic downturn, couldn't afford to send her daughter to all-day kindergarten. Anxiously, she recalled teachers saying they could tell apart youngsters who got that extra learning time: "I didn't want her to have a disadvantage to her classmates."

Fisher, Minn., where Bruer served as superintendent before joining D-G-F last year, introduced district-sponsored all-day K years ago. He said the district promptly saw a test score increase.

D-G-F is looking to trim up to $160,000 from its budget. Bruer said the cuts would be the result of expiring state funding, not an effort to free up funds for the kindergarten program.

A handful of districts in the region, such as Barnesville, already have free all-day kindergarten.