Tuesday, March 10, 2015

OPINION: Kindergarten Lottery System Shouldn't Be Left to Chance


As a parent, one of the first really big decisions one makes is the school of choice for one’s children.  Fort Thomas parents are very fortunate in that the public school system makes that choice quite easy AND should one desire private/religious instruction, there are two great options there as well.

However, once decided on the nationally-ranked, Blue Ribbon public schools, the big remaining decision is full- or half-day Kindergarten.  I, like many parents, elected full-day as the best option for my son.  However, due to the misfortunes of the lottery system, my son (and seventeen other children) was denied access into the Johnson Elementary School full-day program.  

I didn’t intend to write this column given that it struck too close to home, but after having a number of parents reach out to me out of frustration with the system, I decided to go straight to the source, Jon Stratton Assistant Superintendent of the Fort Thomas Independent Schools, to get some answers.


Before we get to that, let’s cite a few statistics. In 2013, a study conducted by ChildTrends.org, a non-profit research organization, found that 77% of children nationwide attend a full-day Kindergarten program.  In schools in the South, that percentage is 85%.  That number has increased from 28% in 1977.

Additionally, public and private schools are equally likely to have full-day Kindergarten. Research nearly universally agrees on the importance of early childhood education; however, the benefits of full-day versus half-day Kindergarten are less conclusive with some studies showing a short-term impact but relatively little, if any, long-term benefit.  Conversely, other studies have shown far improved reading readiness and early math skills.

That being known, in a district that prides itself on the public school system, for which we pay a tax rate much higher than many surrounding communities, it was frustrating for many parents (myself included) to be denied equal access to education.  

To be fair, parents that were denied access to their zoned elementary school DO have the option to attend full-day Kindergarten at one of the other schools, space permitting (this year, that would be Woodfill as they had the fewest children sign up for full-day). However, for parents with multiple children, the logistics of two morning drop-offs, holiday parties, school involvement among other things, does not really make this a viable option.

Also, it is worth noting that parents of the children attending full-day instruction pay an additional $2700 in tuition, whereas half-day costs nothing additional, to cover the costs. This means for the 17 students denied access, there is $45,900 in lost revenue.

When asked these questions and more, Stratton reiterated the fairness of the current lottery system.  Privately to several parents, he expressed the sentiment that denying children their first choice Kindergarten is extremely difficult and not something he or any of the Fort Thomas educators want to have to do; however, as with most things, it comes down to the financial impact.

“The state of Kentucky only funds ½ day kindergarten. The district opted to provide some all-day class several years ago as a service to our families – something that continues today. I am not sure there are a large number of districts providing all-day kindergarten in the state and most that are probably receive federal or state funding tied to lower socioeconomic backgrounds which we do not receive," said Stratton. "The tuition has to cover the cost of the additional ½ day for the teachers and instructional assistants as well as other costs.  Historically, the tuition covers the cost of the four all-day classes; however, the 5th all-day class seems to put us past the breakeven point financially.”

Essentially, each class is approximately 22 students, The district, financially, can handle 88 enrollees ($237,600 in revenue).  This year, 73 students were admitted into full-day Kindergarten, 40 from Moyer, 37 from Johnson, and 11 from Woodfill originally requested admission.  Due to fluctuations in enrollment, Moyer received the second full-day class so all 40 Moyer students received their first choice.  However, given the district’s self-imposed requirement to have one class at each school and the low enrollment figures from Woodfill, 15 Johnson students were denied access at Johnson but given the option to attend Woodfill or do half-day Kindergarten at Johnson.

So, to decide which children get in the program and which are denied, the schools each hold an individual lottery.  Per Stratton, “Each school holds their own lottery in the school office.  Typically, as was done this year, the drawing is done with the principal, an office assistant, and the assistant superintendent. All student names are placed on a piece of paper which is folded and then placed into a basket. Girls names go in one basket and boys names go in the other.  The names are drawn, alternating between the boy and girl basket until all names are drawn and written on a list.”

Those students that do not get in are then put on a wait list and allowed access if a child should drop out (only a boy replaces a boy and a girl replaces a girl to keep a balance of sexes in the classes).

They also have the option to enroll in a half-day at their zoned school.  Depending upon enrollment requests for morning versus afternoon Kindergarten, the school could host yet another lottery to determine which section kids are placed in.

For example, Johnson has only a handful of students for the afternoon class and is nearly full in the morning so will quite likely have to hold a lottery to decide placement in the half-day program.

When asked if any approaches different from the lottery were considered, Stratton reiterated that this was the most fair way to give “everyone equal opportunity.”   He went on to advise that parents with questions should contact the principal at their school or him directly; he also stated that the district has been in contact with nearly every affected student.

Rob Heilman is a parent of both a current Johnson student and an incoming kindergartener that was not granted admission to Johnson’s full day class. “I don’t understand why they simply pulled names out of a hat to select from the applicants.  It does not take into consideration the logistics of getting children to/from school.  Why not use something like proximity to the various schools to assist in the placement.  It would be easier for someone who lives closer to HHS to get their children to Moyer or Woodfill than it would for someone who lives past St. Catherine.  The same idea would apply for parents in the Woodfill district in years like 2014-15 where their applicants exceeded capacity.”

He went on to say that the existing process aside, the district should possibly reconsider things for this year.  “Moyer and Johnson both had enough applicants this year to have two classes at each school if the minimum class size is 18 students.  Woodfill did not have enough applicants to meet the minimum class size.  Those facts alone should be enough to reconsider the process this year.  I hope that this will generate an open discussion between the school district and the members of our community on how the current process might be modified to better meet the enrollment needs moving forward."

At risk of editorializing in this column, I agree with these sentiments.  I question how a public school can give unfair advantage to some children over another based solely on a lottery.  I question the use of a lottery system where parents are not welcomed to participate.   I question how no other options, such as raising tuition to cover all students that want in the full-day option, or removing the self-imposed requirement to have one class at each school and go solely by enrollment requests (although then this just shifts the problem from a Johnson problem to angry Woodfill parents and does nothing to correct the issue).

But mostly, I question how I am supposed to tell my son whose greatest excitement in February was the fact that he got to go to school on a Saturday for Wise Owl’s “Pop-Tot” breakfast that his friends get to go to the same school all day at Johnson but he only can for half.  Seriously, any suggestions?

A coalition of parents is trying to change that dialogue and avoid that conversation entirely.  A petition is currently being circulated and a contingency of concerned parents will be attending the next School Board meeting to get some of these questions answered.

And let me be clear, despite my frustration and that of many similar parents, I firmly believe the process is a difficult one on the administrators of our schools, I firmly believe that they truly want to accommodate everyone and the failure to do so frustrates them and I firmly believe that the Board and all administrators do everything in their power to accommodate everyone but, if unable, to at least make the process fair.

However, additionally, I and the other parents  believe that if we put our heads together, there has to be a better way.

My husband and I have called Fort Thomas home for 30 years and know that our HHS degree has given us a lot of advantages in life; we simply want those same advantages for our children and we question how in the world Fort Thomas allows any student to be amongst the 23% minority of children in the United States that do not get the enrichment and early childhood education provided by full-day Kindergarten.

Jessica Duke is a columnist for Fort Thomas Matters. The views and opinions expressed here in this opinion editorial do not necesarily reflect the views or opinions of Fort Thomas Matters, it owners, writers, or editors. These are solely the ideas of the author.

14 comments:

  1. Maybe its do to far to many using full day kindergarten as a daycare because they don't like multiple pick up times. If you truly want your child to attend full time, I don't see what the issue is with letting them attend one of the other elementary. Ft.Thomas is about 6 miles, from one end to the other. Certainly that shouldn't be to far away. As for holiday parties and such, it comes down to priorities. Is it more important for your child to attend full day, or you being involved with the holiday party? These are just a few things that I see. You can't make everyone happy, and just because its Fort Thomas, doesn't mean that there are growing pains.

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  2. All my kids went to half day kindergarten in ft. thomas. Whats the big deal?

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  3. I also went to half day Kindergarten and turned out just fine. The big difference is there was no full-day Kindergarten as an option so each child started from the same relative advantage. Now, the schools are giving advantage to some children over another solely based on a lottery. Some studies show long-term and irrecoverable benefits from full-day early childhood education and it is absurd to decide at age 5 based on a lottery which kids will receive the advantage and which won't. As for the issue of attending a different school, this is certainly an option and one that we must consider as parents of children who did not get in but aside from the difficult logistics, there is also a social consideration; it can be difficult for some children to socialize making their education tougher so adding an increased disruption by completely switching out their friend group after only one year is a tough choice to make as well.

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  4. It's pretty hard to see how a random lottery is unfair. I'd guess that if your child got in, you wouldn't have written this. And yet, the school district offered you an alternative (full day at Woodfill). But, not good enough, I guess?

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  5. Every child is different & half day kindergarten or kindergarten at a different school may not be the best option for them. The randomness of a lottery does not take that into consideration and best interest of the children are not being met. My son has Sensory Processing Disorder and this may be a big setback for him socially and academically. It is very disheartening to go through this after everything we have done to work with our child and prepare him for next year.

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    1. My son has auditory processing disorder. He used a FM system at Johnson and middle school. It worked great.

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  6. It's a challenge for the schools and the parents. And I believe the schools and teachers do not take this issue lightly -- especially when they have to field calls from justifiably frustrated parents. However, I think the larger issue that needs to be dealt with is that all day kindergarten in KY needs to follow other states and become mandatory. All day kindergarten isn't daycare. Grade school isn't what it was like when we were children. The homework, projects, tests, etc is much more rigorous and advanced these days. By third grade it can be a parent's nightmare. All day kindergarten is a necessity in my opinion.

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  7. Thank you for writing this!! I, too, am a parent of one of the students that did not 'win the lottery' to attend at Johnson. I'm heartbroken that I have to share with my little one that while some of his friends will get to go a full day, he will not. Yes, it may only be for things like lunch, additional recess, etc...; but all of those social experiences are important. Maybe they won't miss out on the academic aspect of things, it's still a big disappointment. Also, those who feel that taking them from one school to another is 'no big deal', I'm guessing they don't have children that they'll have to bounce around, and how that affects their day. Just truly disappointing.

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  8. Here is a question to ask the individual school Principal or School Board. Do children in full day Kindergarten receive more academic instruction than those in the 1/2 day Kindergarten? In past years the teachers were not to teach more/different topics to the full day Kindergarten. The full day Kindergarten was more for socialization which is still necessary for young children.

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  9. Both of my kids 'won' the lottery, so I dont have an opinion about it. The real problem is the out of district kids taking spots of in district kids. My kids have several friends that don't live in town and they are in all day kindergarten. Look at a school directory and see all the addresses outside of Fort Thomas. Even when my kids interact with their friends at school it is amazing how many don't live in town. I understand taking the extra money from tuition kids, but take care of in district kids first.

    They should have a rule about siblings though. It is not reasonable to split a family up between schools even if it is for one year. Try getting from one end of town to the other when school is starting or getting out. It is a 20 minute trip no matter which way you go! It is impossible to drop off/pickup at two different schools, especially with a kindergartener involved.

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  10. If all-day kindergarten is important to you, why not drive to Woodfill? It isn't that far. Parents will happily drive kids 10-15 miles to swim or soccer practice.

    Isn't this really about the persistent (albeit, incorrect) view that Woodfill isn't as good as Moyer and Johnson? As long as I've lived in town, the Moyer and Johnson families have looked down on Woodfill. But, there's always another spoken reason for not wanting to go to Woodfill -- it's too far, my child's friends don't go there, you have to cross US 27, etc. Talk to the parents of Woodfill students. There are great teachers and administrators there. If you need all-day kindergarten and don't get your first choice, try Woodfill. You'll love it. Then, let's all push Frankfort to adequately and equitably fund our education system, even if that means we have to pay a little more in state income tax. Maybe then the finances will work out for everyone to get exactly what they want.

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  11. My son was offered all day K years ago at a different elementary when a full session was not possible at our elementary. My husband and I decided not to send him to another elementary for kindergarten and kept him at our school for 1/2 day. He had a great year, didn't know or care in the least that other children were going all day and I didn't have to "break the news to him" because I am the parent. I made the decision not to send him to the other school for all day K.. I did not worry about his feelings in the least.

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  12. My kid has been to Moyer and Woodfill. Woodfill has been such a better experience than Moyer. We love it there. So, keep looking down on Woodfill and go to Johnson & Moyer, we love it here!

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