New funding helps Benson schools expand preschool opportunities

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With the help of $103,938 in new state funding, Benson Public Schools is offering free preschool for all four-year-olds in the district.

Coming into the 2016-2017 school year, Benson Public Schools had one section of full-day four-year-old classes and one half-day section for four-year-olds. But it could not afford to accommodate all those children whose parents would have like to see their children enrolled in a preschool class.

However, the new state funding has made it possible for all four-year-olds to be enrolled. “It is a great thing for our community,” Supt. Dennis Laumeyer said. “We are excited to offer that to all our four-year-olds.” The school district is also hoping that be being able to offer free pre-school to all four-year-olds, it will capture those children and their families for the whole preschool to graduation journey.

“This year we wanted to make sure that we could accommodate every family that wanted to have that option of pre-school…” for their four-year-old, Laumeyer said. So, this year another full-day class of pre-school was added. “Before, we had to turn them away.”

To make room for those additional four-year-olds, the school district had to move its three-year-old half-day class to a classroom in the Junior High School. “That is the only way we could accommodate that additional class,” he said.

Having to set up the three-year-olds in a separate building was a challenge, Laumeyer said. It also is much better to run the pre-school programs with three and four-year-olds out of the same building. “We can share resources and staff a more efficiently,” he said. But for the most part, it should work out fine, Laumeyer added.

But the biggest change that has been implemented this fall was made possible by last minute pre-school funding that came from the state. It makes it possible for Benson schools to offering all four-year-olds pre-school classes for free.

Benson was among the 74 school districts and charter schools that will now share limited state funding for preschool this year. Minnesota’s Legislature passed a scaled-back voluntary pre-kindergarten program this year that aims to improve early childhood education in impoverished school districts – Benson ranked 71st on the list.

Nearly 60 percent of the school districts that applied for the funding were rejected. Dayton has said that the high number of rejections highlights the need to increase funding, which has been a top legislative priority of his for several years now. Only $25 million was set aside in the program, which will continue in the future unless the Legislature makes a change.

Even with the announcement that it had qualified for more than $100,000 in extra state funding, the school district had to figure out if it could afford it because there are strings attached, Laumeyer said. The legislation creating the pre-K funding says that students must get 350 hours of classroom time a year for the district to qualify for the state funding.

Benson schools have two full-day four-year-old classes. One meets Monday and Wednesday and the other Tuesday and Thursday students getting 410 hours in the classroom during the year. But it also has a half-time four-year-old class that meets three days a week for half a day, for 310 hours of classroom time for the year. That doesn’t meet the requirement of 350 hours, Laumeyer said. That means, no additional state funding for those students.

Fortunately, Laumeyer said, the funding from the state District 777 is receiving will be enough to cover its costs and it won’t have to charge parents to make up the difference.

It is up to parents whether or not they want their four-year-olds in the half-day or the full-day program.

Benson schools received funding for 31 additional four-year-olds. It wasn’t notified that it had received the funding until earlier this month, which was short notice ensure that all four-year-olds would be offered free pre-K classes.

 

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