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The faces were all familiar to Jane Catezone during a recent parents’ night at Garfield Elementary School. Then again, Catezone teaches a relatively small segment of District 91’s students. The early childhood special education program, which caters to students in grades three through five, brings only eight students to Catezone’s classroom everyday, she said.

But Catezone was hoping to meet with parents whose children aren’t yet enrolled in the public school and who may find the junior kindergarten program to be helpful. Intervening on a struggling child’s behalf earlier rather than later could pay huge dividends, according to program proponents.

District officials have budgeted for an expansion of that curriculum for the 2008-09 school year, and so far have not been able to attract enough students to warrant hiring additional staff. The expansion was targeted specifically at children not yet old enough for the regular kindergarten program, but who could benefit from the early emphasis on language skills and socialization.

Catezone thought the May 1 parents’ night would be the perfect opportunity to talk to moms and dads about the importance of early childhood education, so she sent out flyers and other notices to try and boost attendance. There were no newcomers.

“I don’t know what else I could have done,” Catezone said.

Superintendent Lou Cavallo expects to outline his new strategy for expanding junior kindergarten during the school board’s May 8 meeting. After a disappointing showing at an early registration event last month, Cavallo said he will likely focus on making the program the best it can be before trying to recruit more students.

“I’m going to hopefully build a really good program that people want to be in,” Cavallo said. “My hypothesis is [parents] knew about the program and chose not to participate. I think we need to have a very good model for them to see.”

Roughly a year ago Sharon Miller-Agiste enrolled her twin sons, now 4, in the junior kindergarten program that runs for half a day at Betsy Ross Elementary. She was one of the familiar faces at Catezone’s parenting event and said she meets with the school staff several times a year to discuss the progress her children are making. The biggest gains, said Miller-Agiste, have been in language development.

“I just notice a really big difference in their communication skills and how they communicate with people,” Miller-Agiste said. Her boys are also more confident when meeting new people and in expressing themselves, she said.

There are roughly 30 children enrolled in this year’s junior kindergarten class. Cavallo and school board members were hoping to accept as many as 120 students with an expanded offering.