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After weeks of trying to get the word out on the district’s expanded offerings for kindergarten students, Superintendent Lou Cavallo said he was thoroughly disappointed with Saturday’s turnout at an early-registration event. And with only 26 kids on the rolls at day’s end, the superintendent said he’s inclined to nix the plans altogether.

“Right now, we plan for what we have,” Cavallo said.

Currently, District 91 offers a half-day junior kindergarten program to children not yet old enough to attend regular kindergarten. The early childhood education initiative is housed at Betsy Ross Elementary and caters to roughly 30 children, shy of the 40-student maximum.

In February, school board members agreed with Cavallo that expanding the junior kindergarten program to two other elementary school campuses in Forest Park was a worthwhile endeavor. The board agreed to spend up to $128,000 in the first year and hoped to enroll a total of 120 kids. The schools also partnered with the Forest Park Park District to offer transportation and daycare services to make the half-day of instruction more appealing to working parents.

Families will still be able to register their child for the 2008-09 junior kindergarten program in August, said Cavallo, but it would take an impressive turnaround to warrant hiring additional staff. Educators were hoping to have 15 to 20 children per site for both the morning and afternoon sessions.

“Right now, I don’t have enough kids to operate the program in all the buildings,” Cavallo said.

The district’s business manager, Ed Brophy, said that if the schools needed to hire additional instructors for junior kindergarten, there would be no net change in staffing levels over the current year. The only additional cost for starting up the expansion would be for supplies, which he pegged at roughly $2,000 to $4,000.

“There’s not a significantly large upfront cost that we would have to commit to even if we had only five kids,” Brophy said.

School board President Glenn Garlisch said he was “cautiously optimistic” heading into the April 19 registration drive and is hoping to see at least 80 students by the start of the next school year. But if the numbers aren’t there to support the program – despite the relatively low cost – Garlisch said he will look to administrators for direction on how to proceed.

“It’s like sending invitations off for a party,” Garlisch said. “You hope everybody’s going to come, but you really don’t know.”

Since February, educators have asked area churches to help promote the program, sent notices home with children and solicited parent groups for their support in spreading the word.

In particular, school officials were hoping the expanded offering would attract more black students, perhaps helping that demographic boost its early language skills. During his February pitch to the school board, Cavallo cited a host of studies that show black children between the age of 3 and 4 rank well below the national average in terms of language development.

Black students in District 91 have historically been outperformed on standardized tests by their white counterparts. Roughly half of black third-graders failed to meet grade-level expectations in reading, according to the 2007 Illinois Standards Achievement Test. Fewer than 10 percent of white third-graders missed the same mark.

“The expectations have always been that it’s a great program to have and contributes to the goals that we have of reaching out to the children of the district as early as possible,” said school board Vice President Sean Blaylock.

Prior to Saturday’s registration event, Blaylock said he was more concerned that the district wouldn’t have room to accommodate all the students he anticipated would be interested in the program. But with or without the numbers, Blaylock said it’s important that the district is taking steps to improve the opportunities that students have.

“I think the plan overall is to beef up a commitment that the district has already made,” Blaylock said.

In the days leading up to the next board meeting on May 8, Cavallo said he will formulate recommendations for the board to consider. One priority, he said, will be to try and understand why there seems to be a lack of interest.