Despite pleas from faculty and parents to continue the program, the Riverside Elementary School District 96 school board voted at its Jan. 15 meeting to cancel the district’s kindergarten enrichment program for next year, while also declining to take any new action to address the district’s growing enrollment.

The kindergarten enrichment program has been offered in the district since the early 1990s, a program paid for by parents who chose to enroll their children in it. Over the past few years, the program has become very popular at each of the district’s four elementary schools, with two-thirds of kindergarten students participating in recent years.

The debate over whether to continue the program arose from the skyrocketing enrollment at Ames School, where space limitations would have made it impossible to offer the afternoon program during the next school year.

Availability had already been restricted this year, with the introduction of afternoon kindergarten sections, meaning some students had to forego enrichment. With the possibility of further restricting access to the program next year, board members questioned whether the program should still be offered.

For many in the packed audience of nearly 80 people last week, that answer was yes. Although some argued it wouldn’t be fair to not offer the program at each school, many parents said the benefits of the program-the opportunity for students to strengthen their academic and social skills-were too valuable to give up.

Many compared the program to having full-day kindergarten, which parents for many years have asked the board to implement.

“If we eliminate enrichment now, we are really eliminating the possibility of us having full-day kindergarten in this district,” said Jennifer Leimberer, a parent of a kindergarten student at Hollywood School. “There are other sacrifices we can be making. That is not an appropriate one.”

Despite this support for the program, board President Cheryl Berdelle said that as the enrollment crunch put the spotlight on enrichment, other problems with the program have been revealed.

For example, she said, the district does not plan and monitor the program’s curriculum as it does for every other academic program. Also, she said, the fact that the program was organized by district administrators, but only available to families able to pay the extra fee, raised additional questions of fairness that needed to be addressed.

“With the stresses put on the program by enrollment, we’re forced to look at it more,” Berdelle said, “and we’re forced to see its warts and weaknesses and strengths, and that’s what we’re struggling with right now.”

That sentiment was shared by most of the board members, who voted 6-1 to cancel the program for next year. Board member Giles McCarthy was the dissenting vote, arguing that the program should not be ended without a replacement to meet the needs of the students.

“We’re not in a position to offer a viable, implementable program to replace it next year,” McCarthy said. “I don’t see that we kill a program that’s popular for a lot of different reasons. … It’s the closest thing to what the entire district wants and has wanted for many years.”

Berdelle said that the board will immediately begin discussing options for another program to replace enrichment, or otherwise meet the needs of the district’s kindergarteners. That discussion included considering a suggestion made by the Ames School faculty to create a program focusing on at-risk students to better prepare them for higher grades.

Faculty proposal a ‘shift in policy’

That suggestion was just one part of a larger proposal submitted to the board by the faculty last month to address the school’s enrollment problems, which are the most severe in the district.

In addition to devoting a section of kindergarten to at-risk students, the faculty suggested relocating Ames’ kindergarten students to other schools in the district to alleviate space constraints at Ames until their enrollment declines.

According to the district’s enrollment projections, that decline is expected to begin by the 2010-11 school year.

Parents at Ames have been calling for the board to take action to relieve the enrollment crisis there for the past two months, and many at the meeting spoke in favor of the faculty proposal.

Although no formal vote was taken for or against, board members unanimously rejected the proposal as an unnecessary departure from current policies.

Berdelle said relocating an entire grade level would amount to an abandonment of the district’s flexible boundary plan, which directs administrators to prevent overcrowding at individual schools by relocating new, incoming students and maintaining fixed class-size caps.

“It’s a plan that’s working,” Berdelle said. “This is a community that embraces neighborhood schools, and has embraced them time and time again. The faculty proposal is a good plan, but it would be a fundamental shift in our strategic policy.”

Using projected enrollment numbers, Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson demonstrated that, by using the flexible boundary plan, the district would be able to maintain class sizes and keep each school under its maximum enrollment until enrollment begins to decline in 2010.

For Ames, this would mean enrollment would increase from its current 304 to 329 in 2009-10. While this is still under its maximum enrollment of 338, Principal Colleen Lieggi said further increases would mean having to take more drastic measures to find classroom space, dividing up the school’s multipurpose room into two new classrooms and relocating lunch to the gym.

While refusing to change the district’s policy in one night, board members did acknowledge the strains being put on the schools, especially Ames. Some suggested it was time for longer discussions to reassess the district’s priorities.

“I think realistically we’re at the point where we can’t have it all for everybody. We can’t have neighborhood schools, K-5, enrichment, all-day kindergarten. We just can’t do it,” board member James Schraidt said. “So let’s open up this discussion and move forward.”