Despite a so-so level of attendance in the current program, educators in District 91 plan to dramatically expand junior kindergarten offerings in the coming school year in an effort to boost early childhood language skills, particularly among black kids.

Currently, the half-day program has a total of 30 children enrolled in its morning and afternoon sessions held at Betsy Ross Elementary. That figure is short of the 40-student maximum, but Superintendent Lou Cavallo lobbied hard at the school board’s Feb. 14 meeting to install junior kindergarten at both the Garfield and Grant-White schools as well. That would give parents in the K-8 district three locations to send their 4 and 5 year olds for either morning or afternoon instruction.

Families living near the Field-Stevenson Elementary School will be able to send their children to any of the three sites.

Board members unanimously approved the initiative despite being unclear on the program’s cost. However, Cavallo assured the board that the price tag would not exceed $128,000, and said that figure is contingent largely upon the need for additional staffing.

“It probably will not cost anywhere near this,” Cavallo told the board. But given his expectations for how an expanded junior kindergarten program could impact a child’s learning, the price is well worth it, said Cavallo.

“There is a possibility this will cost very little to nothing. But we should approve it under the assumption it will cost us $128,000,” Cavallo said.

The superintendent pointed to a bevy of research that says early exposures to classroom readiness programs can have a dramatic impact on a child’s scholastic performance. In particular though, Cavallo is hoping that black families will take advantage of the expanded offerings. One study cited by the superintendent in his presentation to the school board reported that the average 3 and 4-year-old black child’s vocabulary skills rank well below the national average.

Black students in District 91 have historically been outperformed on standardized tests by their white counterparts. According to the 2007 Illinois Standards Achievement Test, roughly half of black third-graders failed to meet grade level expectations in reading while fewer than 10 percent of white third-graders missed that mark. To varying degrees, that trend held through all grade levels tested by the 2007 ISAT.

Analysis of several years worth of standardized test scores reveal that race-more so than economics-appears to play a larger role in how District 91 students perform on these tests.

“We know that the achievement gap is at least partially due to factors that are societal,” Cavallo said. “We want to address as much of those as we can.”

Though the motivation for expanding junior kindergarten is academic, school administrators emphasized that the program would not follow a rigid curriculum. In fact, feedback gathered by the district indicated that parents do not want a more academically aggressive program for younger children.

School board President Glenn Garlisch said it must be emphasized to parents that junior kindergarten is not necessarily the place for over-achievers. Socialization and basic language skills will likely be the program’s focus points.

“It’s not a daycare, but we’re not providing computer skills,” Garlisch said. “I think we’ve got to communicate that to the public.”

Junior kindergarten is currently and will remain open to all age-eligible students in Forest Park.

School administrators are hoping that daycare services offered through a partnership with the Park District will help entice parents who would prefer an all-day junior kindergarten program. Children enrolled in the coming school year would be given priority to help guarantee them a spot in the park’s daycare. Transportation between the school and the park district would be provided.