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.