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Four-year-old kindergarten is returning to Waukesha neighborhood schools.

In recent years, the school district had been holding most K4 classes at the Waukesha Early Learning Center, the former White Rock Elementary School. The move back into neighborhood schools, beginning next fall, was based on families' preferences to send their children to school closer to where they live, Early Learning Coordinator Laura Faust said.

Futhermore, the district also saw a need from a curriculum and instruction standpoint to align the K4 program with kindergarten and elementary schools, said Joe Koch, assistant superintendent of student services.

Still on the rise

Pre-kindergarten has seen an increase in interest over several decades. According to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, in 1980 only six districts in the state offered K4 programs. By 2015, that number has grown to almost 400 districts statewide.

Many districts, including Waukesha, take a collaborative community approach to K4 programs, Faust said, noting that the local district will keep its nine community partners.

The Waukesha School District will expand its K4 offerings with the addition of another dual-language program. The school district had two programs this year, but there was "a lot of family interest that showed the district we should expand," Faust said. The classes are taught in English and Spanish with a combination of native English and Spanish speakers.

The district said it is anticipating enrollment in Waukesha schools' 4K programs to have a higher or equal enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year.

"We ran an early enrollment window to help us place sites, and we had 625 kids enroll already," Koch said, noting that Waukesha has 675 students enrolled in 4K programs this year. "We are already almost at the same enrollment for this year with five months left."

Beneficial approach

Research has showed K4 programs can have long-term benefits on students' continuing education, which has contributed to its rise in popularity, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

"The research is showing that early interventions benefit students for their career," Faust said, "It is setting a foundation for initial learning habits and routines, and it's shown that (students) do better."

The areas where benefits are the most apparent are language and literacy, as well as behavior and social skills, studies show. In a statewide early education study conducted by the National Center for Early Development and Learning, Wisconsin 4K students improved on all dimensions in language and literacy, and improved social skills, while behavior problems showed slight decreases.

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