OWATONNA — For Owatonna schools, this summer represents the last window of preparation for the new all-day kindergarten program, which is set to begin in the fall.

Teachers have expressed excitement about the transition to Todd Andrix, president of the Owatonna Education Association, which is the teachers’ union.

“It’s just an amazing thing,” he said. “It’s nice to see us finally get on board with it.”

While many schools in the state already had all-day programs, every public district began preparations after funding was allocated by the state Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton last year. Part of a larger education bill, the measure extended all previous kindergarten classes that used to run only for a couple hours.

Owatonna had a pilot all-day program at Wilson Elementary, which was previously the only public all-day kindergarten location out of the four elementary schools in the district.

Andrix said the Wilson program was popular with teachers, especially of first graders. They have said that students coming from all-day kindergarten are better prepared for the next step. Tom Sager, director of finance and operations for Owatonna schools, said that the program was popular with parents as well, even though class sizes around town were relatively the same.

With half-day schedules, schools could accommodate two class sections per day in one classroom. Now, each section will need its own classroom for the whole day. At Lincoln and McKinley elementary schools, modular units will be brought in to provide some extra space.

Each school will receive one modular unit, detached from the main building, according to district director of buildings and grounds Dave Ihrke. They will be used for things like art, music or video production workshops.

Ihrke said each new unit measures roughly 35-by-70 feet and will house two classrooms. He expects them to be ready around mid-July. In total, they come at the cost of about $130,200 to set up and purchase.

The buildings are meant to be a temporary solution to get the all-day program going.

“We need the room now for these programs, so we don’t have much of a choice,” Ihrke said.

Plans to phase out the modular units have not been announced. Willow Creek Intermediate School currently has a similar unit that has been there about five years, according to Ihrke.

Washington Elementary will be able to provide the extra space in its building, as the Montessori program will be moving to Lincoln.

Another part of the implementation — as well as the largest cost item — is the hiring of new teachers. Seven new kindergarten teachers will join the district as part of all-day kindergarten — two for McKinley, Lincoln and Washington and one at Wilson.

Sixteen educational assistants will also be hired in order to have one in each classroom. They will work part-time and provide support in the classroom as well as in other activities like lunch and recess, according to Amy LaDue, district director of teaching and learning.

LaDue said that the curriculum will be updated this summer, just as teachers normally do. She said the biggest benefit will be that students will receive more in-depth lessons for core subjects.

Math and reading time will more than double, and other items will be added to the plan. One example is a calendar lesson that incorporates math and time management skills. Areas like physical education, music and art will become regular parts of the kindergarten curriculum.

In planning, LaDue said that it helped to have a local all-day program to follow.

“We have a great model in place,” she said. “We’ve already done revisions in the way of adding depth to our curriculum that Wilson has already been implementing.”

Staffing costs associated with all-day kindergarten is estimated at about $790,000, according to district data. That is close to the entire added contribution from the state.

All told, the cost to implement the program is expected to cost about $1.1 million. That includes staffing, new classrooms, staff development, classroom materials and other factors. The district expects to receive $873,000 more from the state, leaving $246,000 in start-up costs for the district.

“It has been accounted for, and it’s something that we’re required to fold into our plan next year,” Sager said.

The district is able to cover the additional cost, but Sager said that makes the overall budget outlook less in the black than previously thought. Early estimates projected annual budget growth at $1.4 million — a figure that now could be about $400,000.

Sager will present next year’s preliminary budget to the school board on June 23.

In greater Steele County, Medford and Blooming Prairie already had all-day kindergarten in place.

Blooming Prairie Superintendent Barry Olson said that its program started about nine years ago and has been successful. Before, it was paid for out of the general fund. The state dollars that go to every district to support the program will change the district’s budget.

“The state totally funding it has really helped us,” he said.

Owatonna school officials hope to put the final pieces in place this summer. That includes getting the modular units in place and prepped, as well as faculty training.

Andrix said the new teachers will get formally acquainted with the union by early fall. Ultimately, he believes the move to all-day kindergarten will be a long-term benefit to students.

“When you can have kids in school that much longer at those levels, it’s a great thing,” he said.

Reach reporter Matt Hudson at 507-444-2372. Follow him on Twitter @OPPMattH

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