A crowd of about 30 parents dominated a Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education meeting last Tuesday, expressing frustration over changes to the district calendar and kindergarten program being planned for next year.
The introduction of afternoon kindergarten sections for the upcoming school year, an option the board approved at its Jan. 17 meeting, sparked the most objections from parents. The board’s decision was in reaction to steadily increasing enrollment throughout the district. Afternoon kindergarten sections will free up classrooms needed for other grade levels.
“The only way we can get classrooms, unless we cut art, music, conference rooms or other spaces, is to look at the option of p.m. kindergarten,” Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson said.
But as parents at the meeting pointed out, and as a kindergarten study conducted by the district last year also concluded, half-day kindergarten programs in either the morning or the afternoon are no longer considered a “best practice” in education. Rather, extended-day programs have been shown to provide larger academic and social benefits for students, and parents called on the board to take that route instead.
“Please consider biting the bullet and doing the right thing-asking the residents for more money, if you have to-and instituting full-day kindergarten,” said resident Holly Machina.
While administrators acknowledged the benefits of an extended-day program, however, they stressed that it simply wasn’t an option given the district’s current space constraints.
“The option of full-day is not lost, nor is any other significant best practice,” Lamberson said. “But right now we don’t have the capacity to be able to offer it.”
Parents also expressed concern over how the district would assign students to afternoon and morning sessions, and how the later sections would affect the district’s kindergarten enrichment program. About two-thirds of the district’s current kindergarten class are enrolled in the after-school program this year.
Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi said parents would have the opportunity to specify their preferred section during kindergarten registration, beginning March 1, at each of the district’s four elementary schools. If there is more interest in a certain time slot than there is space available, she said, the school would hold a lottery to assign students to classrooms.
As for the enrichment program, Lamberson said it could still be offered at each school next year, depending on how many afternoon sections are needed and how many students sign up for enrichment. He did acknowledge that the district may not be able to offer it to as many students as they do now, however.
“It might not be two-thirds, but it would be really close,” he said. “We are trying our best to offer enrichment and fulfill as much as possible the priorities of parents.”
Although most parents accepted board members’ and administrators’ reasoning for the change, many were still frustrated with the situation.
“I hear you say you want to do what’s good for kids,” said one mother, addressing the board. “But this doesn’t feel ‘good for kids.’ It’s not good for my kids.”
Less controversy surrounded the proposed changes to the district calendar, which were also discussed at the Jan. 17 meeting. As explained by Lamberson, the revisions include adopting a trimester- rather than quarter-based grading system, and altering student holidays to better coincide with students’ natural learning cycles, giving students time off about every five weeks.
Lamberson said the new calendar would also cut down on the amount of time teachers are taken out of the classroom during the day for administrative work or training. To do this, teacher institute days were added during the year, and early-release days were shortened by two hours, ending at 11:30 a.m. rather than 1:30 p.m.
“[The calendar revisions] will drive down training during class time to almost nothing,” Lamberson said.
Although parents in the audience said the most recent draft of the calendar was better than earlier versions, some protested the shorter early-release days, arguing that working parents would have a difficult time finding childcare during those times. Six early-release days are currently scheduled for next year.
In response, Lamberson said the district was already in talks with the Riverside Recreation Department in an attempt to organize special youth programs on those days, although a final agreement has yet to be reached.
“We are trying to be proactive about this issue,” he said. “If parents would take advantage of this program, we would want it to be available.”
The board will vote to adopt a final version of the new calendar at its next meeting on March 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Hollywood School.