The littlest learners are in big demand.
Some parents want to keep them at home. Educators want to enroll them in kindergarten — some for a full day.
In Arizona’s education marketplace, there is no hotter commodity this time of year than the 5-year-old.
Public school districts, charter schools, and private and parochial schools across the East Valley are actively recruiting their kindergarten classes for next school year — students who are likely to stick with that school beyond kindergarten.
Schools scramble for kindergartners because they are unclaimed territory, said Chuck Essigs, a long-time East Valley educator and lobbyist with the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
"Schools are like any business: Once you get a customer and you serve them well — they’ll likely be a repeat customer," Essigs said. "Over a student’s school career, you’re looking at a lot of money."
In 13 years, one student in Arizona brings in about $45,000 in operational revenue to a public school.
Arizona funds only a half-day of kindergarten except at schools where 90 percent or more of the students qualify for the federal lunch program. But legislators, at the urging of Gov. Janet Napolitano, are debating whether to increase full-day kindergarten to all public schools.
"First and foremost (the goal) is to improve instruction," said John Baracy, superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified School District. "The spin-offs are that it can enhance enrollment."
Many charter schools and some school districts that don’t qualify now for fullday kindergarten have found other ways to fund a full-day program — and use that to draw in more students since full-day kindergarten is popular among many parents.
Now in his first year as Scottsdale’s superintendent, Baracy is trying to reverse declining enrollment. On May 17, Scottsdale residents will vote on a K-3 override that would, among other things, raise roughly $3.2 million in tax revenue to fund free fullday kindergarten in all district schools.
Scottsdale now loses some kindergarten students to the Paradise Valley Unified School District, where a fullday program is already offered.
"Almost all (Paradise Valley’s) increase in enrollment is because of higher numbers of kindergarten students," said Scottsdale district spokesman Tom Herrmann. "Where are those kids coming from? Our district would be the logical place to look."
Scottsdale mother Valerie Iverson is looking forward to the day when her district can afford to offer full-day kindergarten.
"Right now they go to a certified teacher in the morning who tries to cram that state curriculum in a halfday," she said. "Kids come to the school at various stages of readiness to learn. (Full-day kindergarten) helps level the playing field."
Aside from the half-day versus full-day issue, East Valley parents have a variety of options — from Montessori and mixed grade classrooms to arts, technology or religious schools — to navigate in considering where to place their kindergartner.
Wendy Nance, principal of Gilbert Unified School District’s GPS Traditional Academy at Neely Campus, said many parents are attracted to the school’s high test scores and the specific back-tobasics curriculum. Neely doesn’t offer full-day kindergarten, but still draws lines of interested parents — to the point Nance created a DVD tour of her school.
"We have the back-to-basics approach, so we get a lot of parents for kindergarten who are wanting a more academic focus," she said. "We work about a grade level ahead."
Terry Locke, spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District, said before parents explore their options via the Internet or by comparing schools’ test scores, they should visit the campus they’re interested in.
"I always say investigate your home school first," he said. "It’s convenient and your neighbors are going to be part of the very fabric of that school."
Dobson Academy, a Chandler charter school, offers both full- and half-day kindergarten, but shorter classes than most public schools. The academy’s principal, George Ellis, said the choice of kindergarten is one of the most important decisions parents will make.
"If you can make that wise choice," he said, "you will build that relationship and stay with it."