Due to increasing enrollment and space limitations, afternoon kindergarten is set to become a reality in District 96 next year, despite strong parental preference for a morning-only program.

The District 96 school board voted to allow administrators to include afternoon kindergarten sessions next year at each of the district’s four elementary schools at its Jan. 17 board meeting, following a recommendation from its Education Committee.

The district had considered establishing an afternoon kindergarten session at Ames School last year, but decided against it after parents indicated they had little interest in an afternoon program. A more recent survey of district parents, conducted this year as part of a larger study of the district’s kindergarten program, also found that the grand majority of parents would prefer to send their children to a morning session.

Administrators said deferring to parents’ preferences was no longer an option for the district, however, as increasing enrollment numbers required them to find more classroom space for higher grade levels.

“Some of our rooms are now dark in the afternoon, and that may not be an option for us anymore,” Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson said. “We currently use eight classrooms for kindergarten. If we do that next year, the problem is that in three grades we may have to go over class-size caps.”

A secondary motivation for the move to a morning and afternoon kindergarten program is that it will allow the district to hire some kindergarten teachers at a full-time level. Currently the district’s eight kindergarten teaching positions are only part-time, which has led to a high turnover rate.

That was a main concern of this year’s study into the kindergarten program, led by Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi and Central School kindergarten teacher Mindy Keller. Lieggi said the high turnover rate prevented kindergarten teachers from working in coordination with other teachers at the elementary schools, and from connecting closely with students and parents.

“I’ve just been here six years, and I’ve really had a lot of turnover in my building in terms of kindergarten teachers,” Lieggi said. “It’s hard to have a consistent program and have students meet those benchmarks and standards with a constant turnover. I really want the board, if nothing else, to make our teachers full time.”

No extended day for now

In addition to afternoon sessions, the study had also considered implementing an extended-day kindergarten program to achieve full-time status for teachers. With space constraints, however, Lamberson said such a full-day kindergarten program was not an option at this point.

“We didn’t pursue it because we wouldn’t have the capacity to offer it to everyone,” he said. “We don’t even have the capacity to offer what we do now.”

Although the final decision of how many afternoon sessions will be offered at each school has not been made, in a separate interview Lamberson said administrators would likely decide to reduce the number of kindergarten classrooms in the district from eight to six next year. Both Hollywood and Blythe Park schools would keep their single classroom, he said, while Ames and Central schools would each reduce their number from three to two classrooms.

Lamberson said the number of sessions offered at each school would be determined by the number of students who register for each year. Registration begins on March 1. At that time, Lamberson said, parents would be given the option of specifying their preferred time slot.

In the event that too many students sign up for a certain time-in this case, likely the morning sessions-Lamberson said the district would “most likely” use some kind of lottery system to assign students to different sessions.

The idea of a lottery system was floated at the school board meeting, and at the time it immediately drew protests from a handful of parents, who questioned the fairness of such a program.

In response, Lamberson said the district would try to keep the registration process as equitable as possible, but space limitations would not allow every parent’s preference to be met. Hollywood Principal Victoria DeVylder also pointed out that parents have never had a choice over when to send their children to school, and the district could not start giving them that freedom now.

“Right now, parents don’t have a choice-we only offer a.m. sessions,” she said. “If we add p.m. sessions, parents might not have a choice as to which session their child attends. But it wasn’t a choice to begin with.”

As for the kindergarten teachers, Lamberson said the district may maintain some part-time teachers in the program, but would definitely be moving some up to full-time status.

“Right now, without question, we’re looking at have at least two, and possibly more, full-time teachers,” he said.

With all of these changes to the kindergarten program, one lingering question is how the kindergarten enrichment program will be affected. Currently two-thirds of kindergarten students participate in the three- or five-day after school program.

Lamberson said the enrichment program was definitely still on the table for next year, but acknowledged that those students who are placed in afternoon kindergarten sessions would not be able to participate in it. A morning enrichment program was not an option, he said, because every kindergarten classroom will be occupied by a morning kindergarten class.