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Minneapolis, Minn. — The science table is a popular spot in the High Five classroom at Longfellow Elementary School. Teacher Dana Markham helps two of her students search for worms in a container filled with dirt. There are 22 children enrolled in the half-day class, which runs just a few days shorter than the regular school year. Markham says her students get a lot done during their time in High Five.
"Everything from academic readiness skills -- learning how to identify letters and colors and shapes and numbers, doing counting and patterns -- to social skills, learning how to share and take turns, expressing themselves appropriately," Markham says.
High Five is a school readiness program designed for children who turn five after the start of the school year, just missing the kindergarten enrollment cutoff. School district data show less than half of Minneapolis kids start kindergarten with essential literacy skills, such as knowing letter names and sounds, or rhyming words. Longfellow Principal Lillie Pang says High Five provides an early opportunity to close learning gaps among students.
"It's taking that first step onto that playing field that we talk about leveling and having students ready for," Pang said. "High Five is that first step. High Five gives them solid footing into that playing field. And without High Five, students would be stumbling. They would always be at a deficit."
Minneapolis used to pay for the program with regular state education aid. But the Minnesota Department of Education ruled last year that the per-pupil funding formula could no longer apply to preschool programs.
Interim Superintendent David Jennings says Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders agreed instead to give Minneapolis and other affected districts the local taxing authority needed to pay for those programs.
"The governor proposed that in his budget," Jennings said. "The House included it in their education funding bill. The Senate included in their education funding bill. And we included it in our budget, thinking that since the governor and the Senate and House were all in favor of it, certainly it would pass."
Unfortunately, lawmakers adjourned their session two weeks ago without passing several key bills, including a spending plan for K-12 education. That left the already cash-strapped Minneapolis district nearly $1.5 million short on what it needed to offer High Five at 28 locations next fall. Jennings says the district can afford to operate at least 17 sites, which will try to target children with the greatest needs.
"There's no way to know for sure that we get it exactly right," Jennings said. "But there's just no doubt that some kids that would have otherwise had this advanced preparation for kindergarten aren't going to get it."
Jennings says he's looking for additional money to save another three sites this fall. He says more sites could be added if lawmakers resolve the issue in a special session.
Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says approval of the the funding mechanism for High Five could be included in a special session. But she says it would have to be part of broader negotiations.
"It's certainly is going to have to come with some tit-for-tat," Seagren said. "That's an important issue for Minneapolis, but we have many issues for rural areas and for the suburban areas that also need to be addressed. So, I think we need some kind of global agreement on that."
Gov. Pawlenty has discussed the possibility of a special session with legislative leaders, but no decisions have been made.
Meanwhile, parents who were counting on a High Five program at Longfellow Elementary and several other schools are looking at other options. Teachers like Dana Markham are looking for other jobs.