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Families lined up early Wednesday, April 10, at the Community Campus in Hailey to register for public preschool and kindergarten.

The Blaine County School District welcomed its class of 2033 this week as a new crop of preschoolers registered to start school in the fall.

Those who braved the crowds at the Community Campus and Hemingway STEAM School had a good reason to line up early. On Tuesday night, the board of trustees heard a report describing the benefits of preschool on kindergarten readiness, especially for poor and Latino students.

Last year, district staff began a more comprehensive cataloguing of the education that students have received by the time they register for kindergarten, comparing those who attend public half-day preschool, a private option or none at all.

Among this year’s kindergarteners, those who attended pre-K showed up significantly better prepared to start school based on state reading benchmarks, according to a report presented by Director of Teaching and Curriculum Angie Martinez and Data and Assessment Coordinator Marcia Grabow.

Half the 76 students who attended private preschools—which, locally, are overwhelmingly white and more affluent—met standards during the fall round of standardized testing; 37 percent of public-school students hit the benchmark; and 16 percent of kids who did not attend formal preschool were considered proficient.

For Hispanic students, those learning English as a second language and those who qualified for free or reduced lunch—locally, a highly correlated triad of subgroups that indicates higher academic hurdles down the road—preschool presented the only real shot at starting school on par with expectations. None of the 21 Hispanic or the 19 students learning English who entered kindergarten without preschool met standards, and just one of the 17 qualifying for free or reduced lunch did.

Among those attending public preschool, 16 percent of Hispanics, 20 percent of economically disadvantaged and 9 percent of those learning English as a second language were proficient. (Students can and often do fall into multiple subgroups.)

For most of those families, the first-come, first-served 120-slot public program, which runs morning and afternoon half-day sessions at Bellevue and Hailey elementary schools, and morning sessions at Carey and Hemingway, is the only viable option.

Affordability is baked into the purpose of the program. It bills on a sliding scale pegged to income, and rates haven’t been adjusted since the district piloted its first program in 2006; families earning below $40,000 annually attend for free, and no one pays more than $20 per day—$3,440 annually. Parents in Carey don’t pay, regardless of income.

Idaho doesn’t require preschool, so state money doesn’t pay for it. The combination creates a substantial local subsidy. During the 2017-18 school year, 119 kids participated in the program at a cost of $403,660 against $30,280 collected in tuition—a $373,380 gap paid out of the district’s general fund.

“We have a large amount of tuition unpaid by families, which is an indication we are serving our families that need it most,” Martinez said.

With that in mind, Martinez said there is “extreme interest” from the district in bolstering the preschool, either by expanding into Alturas Elementary or extending existing classes to a full day.

“Right now, it’s just a ‘Wouldn’t it be great if’ idea,” she said. “The details haven’t been worked out.”

That could soon change, Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes told the board of trustees Tuesday night.

“We will be running the numbers, because we have a possible funder who has asked,” Holmes said. “But, unless we have the money, it’s not worth thinking about.”

Trustee Kevin Garrison, who called preschool “an investment in our community,” said he hoped a more robust offering wouldn’t require a donor to come out of the woodwork.

“In a perfect world, the state would pay for this program,” he said.

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