Lemoni Hernandez and Kayla Krol work on a kindergarten project at Hollywood School in Brookfield in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Brianna Kwasiborski)

It appears likely that full-day kindergarten will come to Riverside Elementary School District 96 for the 2022-23 academic year.

Although a final decision won’t be made by the school board until its Feb. 16 meeting, a staff committee formed to investigate the pro and cons of full-day kindergarten delivered a report to the school board at their Feb. 2 committee of the whole meeting and recommended the switch. No school board member voiced opposition to the recommendation.

District 96 is the only school district covered by the Landmark not offering full-day kindergarten. Along with the Riverside school district, River Forest District 90, Western Springs District 101 and Hinsdale District 181 are among the few western suburban districts still offering only half-day kindergarten.

The school district’s Full Day Kindergarten Action Team, comprised 15 District 96 staff members, including five of the district’s six kindergarten teachers. The committee, led by Director of Teaching and Learning Angela Dolezal and Blythe Park School Principal Casimira Gorman, met seven times over the last four months and concluded there are both educational and social-emotional benefits to full day kindergarten.

“When you have that gift of time, you can address the needs of all students,” Dolezal said.

Under a proposed full-day kindergarten schedule released by the committee, mornings would focus more on building academic skills while afternoons would allow more time for play-based activities and hands-on learning.

Assuming full-day kindergarten is approved by the school board, families will still have to option to send their child for half days, but there will be no separate half-day class. Rather the student would only attend the morning portion of the full-day class.

The kindergarten teachers on the committee said full-day kindergarten would make for less rushed kindergarten experience and allow more time for individual exploration and a lot more hands-on learning.

School board President Dan Hunt asked about research that indicates academic benefits of full-day kindergarten tend to disappear after a few years in school. But administrators said they believe that the weight of research indicates full-day kindergarten offers many benefits.

Those benefits seem most pronounced for low-income and Black and Hispanic students. One 2017 study reviewed by the committee showed full-day kindergarten significantly reduced the disparities in first and second grade among low-income and Black and Hispanic students compared to higher-income and white students.

“The balance tips toward the education benefit [of full day kindergarten],” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye. “It seems that there is evidence of educational benefits for students.”

Dolezal said that even if the gains are transitory, full-day kindergarten can help students who often struggle in school.

“If we can help our students sooner with a full-day program rather than continuing to have students who are struggling because they’ve been in a half day program and continuing to need to provide interventions because they’ve been in a half day program, I think that’s better for them and it also addresses our strategic plan of looking at equity and opportunity,” Dolezal said.

On the day after the Feb. 2 meeting, Hunt said he was still making up his mind about how to vote.

“The discussion last night, the information that we were provided was pretty positive, gives me a lot of reasons to vote in favor, but I can’t say that I’m committing to vote one way or another,” Hunt told the Landmark in a telephone interview.

But Hunt also noted community support for full-day kindergarten. In December the district surveyed the community and found overwhelming support for full-day kindergarten.

Of the 389 people who directly weighed in on whether they supported full-day or half day kindergarten, nearly 73 percent said that they supported full-day kindergarten compared to just 7 percent who that they opposed it. The rest had no preference.

Switching to full-day kindergarten is projected to cost the district an additional $434,385 next year and approximately $3.5 million over the next five years. District 96 will have to hire four additional kindergarten teachers; one additional teacher each for art, music and physical education; and four part-time midday aides.

The school district will also need to spend about $24,000 for furniture and about $20,000 for social-emotional learning supplies. But since District 96 has been running large operating surpluses and has ample reserves, the district will not have to raise taxes to pay a full-day kindergarten.

“The current fund balance could very easily absorb the additional personnel costs for full-day kindergarten,” said David Barsotti, the chairman of the school board’s finance committee. “It actually should be more of what I consider more of just a footnote.”

Recent expansions at the district’s elementary schools means that space would not be an issue.

“We wouldn’t have to make any major changes at any of the buildings,” said Jim Fitton, director of finance and operations for District 96.

Over the years many, parents have urged District 96 to switch to full-day kindergarten saying that it is hard to find daycare for students in half-day programs. Full-day kindergarten has been on the radar of district officials for some time, but this year the district decided to take an in-depth look since recent expansions at the district’s elementary schools made such a program more viable option.

Class sizes in kindergarten could increase some if the district switches to full-day kindergarten. Since kindergarten attendance is not required, some families in District 96 have chosen to keep kids in private full-day preschool or kindergarten programs and not enroll their children in District 96 until first grade.

“I think our kindergarten class sizes could be a little larger, but not larger in the primary grades,” Ryan-Toye said, estimating that kindergarten class sizes could increase from the high teens to the low 20s.

School board members seemed poised to approve the switch at the Feb. 16 meeting.

“I’m really proud of this district for continuing to move forward,” said school board member Lynda Murphy.