Aurora expands full-day kindergarten to all

Full-day kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora react during a recent lesson on counting that involves colorful blocks.

AURORA – Five-year-old Skyla Davis proudly carries her homework folder in her pink backpack. Her big brown eyes sparkle like her brand-new white school shoes.

She and her kindergarten classmates at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora are natural learners, excited as they count to 81 with their teacher and dig their hands through Play-doh and math manipulatives.

“That’s the most exciting thing about kindergarten,’’ said Skyla’s principal, Quinn O’Keefe, as he watched the buzz build on a recent Monday afternoon. “You can see them learn in a moment.”

Kindergarten offers educators an extraordinary opportunity to hook children on learning and launch them on a path that could change their lives.

That’s why Aurora Public Schools leaders say they’re investing $2.6 million each year from the district’s 2008 tax increase to fund free full-day kindergarten for all children.

Kindergarten in Colorado
  • A 2005 law required school districts to offer kindergarten. To pay for it, the state provides half its annual per-pupil funding for grades 1-12.
  • State law does not require children attend kindergarten – they can start with first grade. The compulsory age of school attendance in Colorado is 6.
  • A 2008 law boosted funding by 8 percent so districts now receive 58 percent of per-pupil funding for kindergarten – the intent was to phase in full-day funding for all.
  • The recession has thwarted plans to add $10 million each year to full-day funding through 2013-14. Cuts now make that unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The full-day program started this fall and doubles the school day for hundreds of children. In the past, lotteries determined which children would win coveted spots in full-day kindergarten classes among the district’s 34 elementary and K-8 schools.

Full-day kindergarten is not mandatory or funded in Colorado and many school districts offer only half-day programs. Some offer full-day programs but charge tuition while others cobble together other funds to support a full-day option.

Prior to tapping the tax funds, Aurora used some federal Title I grant money to ramp up its full-day kindergarten program. Last year, 2,285 children were in full-day programs while 689 participated in half-day classes. This year, more than 3,300 children have registered so far for full-day.

At Laredo, all kindergarten students used to attend half-day programs before 2005. Five years ago, Laredo started using Title I funds to support  full-day kindergarten. In the 2005-06 school year, the school funded one full-day program and four half-day classes. Then the school started having two half-day classes and two full-day kindergartens.

Children who attended half-day classes used to be at school for just under three hours. Now, the school day is extended to 6 ½ hours for all students.

‘Parents want it, state doesn’t pay’

O’Keefe, the school’s principal, used to hear constantly from parents who wanted more school time for their young children.

Debbie Montano, a teacher at Laredo Elementary in Aurora, uses connecting blocks to teach math to her full-day kindergarten class.

“Most parents were knocking on our door saying, ‘I want full day,’ ’’ O’Keefe said. “They didn’t understand that the state doesn’t pay.”

O’Keefe said full-day programs are critical to the low-income families he serves.

“Parents want full-day for the academic advantages, but it will also save them $400 a month in day care,” he said. “Many of our parents are working two and three jobs.”

At Laredo, 85 percent of children qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, an indicator of poverty. Districtwide, the figure is 71 percent.

Full-day in large districts
Percent of kindergarten students in full-day in 2009-10:
  • Jefferson Co. – 72%
  • Denver – 93%
  • Douglas Co. – 8%
  • Cherry Creek – 19%
  • Adams 12 – 42%

Trailer parks and low-income housing cluster along Colfax a block north of the school. Fifty-five percent of Laredo’s students are English Language Learners.

For these children, school is not just a place to polish skills. Students who do well could earn a ticket out of poverty. A sign over the school’s front door reads: “Gateway to College.”  And teachers here like to remind students that for them, college begins in kindergarten.

Yet it can be hard to project to college when many children come to school woefully unprepared for rigorous academics.

“We have kids come to us who don’t know what the letter “A” is or what the color blue is,’’ O’Keefe said. “The challenge for our teachers is to take kids who come in behind, elevate them to proficient and keep them there.’’

So far, full-day kindergarten appears to be helping.

Full-day kindergartners outperform half-day

Aurora educators last year compared children who were in full-day kindergarten with those in half-day programs. On a commonly used reading assessment for younger students, children were considered to be on-target if they hit a benchmark of level 3 by the end of kindergarten.

Growth in kindergarten
  • In fall 2009, 64,190 children were enrolled in kindergarten across Colorado. That’s up 27 percent since 1999 and 42 percent since 1989.
  • Full-day kindergarten is expanding rapidly. In 2009-10, 60 percent of 64,190 kindergarteners were enrolled all day. In 2005-06, 28 percent of 59,398 kindergartners were full-day.
  • In a 2008 survey of school districts, 104 reported offering full-day to all students and 42 were offering full-day to some students.
  • Colorado children are attending school earlier. Preschool enrollment in fall 2009 was 29,701 – up 782 percent over fall 1989.

Throughout the district, 64 percent of the children in full-day kindergarten hit the target, while 51 percent of the half-day children were reading at level 3.

At Laredo, the results were even more striking. Since the full-day program started in 2005, an average of 71 percent of students were either proficient or advanced in end-of-the-year benchmark tests. Just 51 percent of children who attended half-day programs showed proficiency.

“Right away, the full-day kindergarten outperformed the half-day,’’ O’Keefe said.

William Stuart, Aurora’s chief academic officer, is keenly aware of achievement gaps between low-income students and English language learners and their peers from higher-income families, who typically come to school fluent in English and ready to learn.

“Achievement gaps start at the earliest ages,’’ Stuart said. “Time is the variable that really impacts student learning. Having kindergarten children in school full days helps eliminate gaps before they start.”

Stuart said the district does not yet have longitudinal data to show whether children who attended full-day kindergarten retain the boost and continue to outperform their peers in later years. But he and other district officials are convinced the investment will pay off.

“Over time, it’s going to pay dividends in narrowing elementary achievement gaps and having far more kids at grade level,’’ Stuart said.

Big dreams begin with kindergarten

At Laredo, O’Keefe said longitudinal trends are positive. Children who attended the school in full-day kindergarten programs out-performed their classmates who came later by an average of five percentage points on state reading exams.

A kindergarten student at Laredo Elementary in Aurora puzzles out a math problem with her Lego-like blocks.

“Five additional percentage points on a CSAP year to year is significant for us,” the principal said.

For 5-year-old Skyla Davis and her family, Laredo is a refuge from life’s chaos. Skyla’s dad, Larry Davis, concedes he’s been checked out for much of Skyla and her little sister’s life.

“I was addicted to crack,’’ Larry Davis said. “Rather than have it affect them,  I sent them to live with my wife’s mom so I could grow up myself.’’

Davis was homeless at times, but said he’s been clean for a few months now and relishes picking up Skyla from school. The family is living with his parents while Davis tries to find work and get his life together.

Both father and daughter love kindergarten.

“Personally, I think full-day is great. There’s more discipline, a better education,” he said. “You get them interacting with other children from an early age. And she learns to respect her elders.”

Davis brushes Skyla’s head as he talks, passing along his hopes to her.

“I settled for a GED and joined the Army,” he said. “I would like her to go to college. I’d like her to fill the shoes and dreams I never did.’’

Sources for statistics, funding: Vody Herrmann, assistant commissioner, Colorado Department of Education; CDE enrollment data; Colorado Revised Statutes; 2008 district survey.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”