LAKEWOOD — Despite their best efforts, dozens of supporters of a plan to expand free full-day kindergarten in Jefferson County did not convince the conservative school board majority of the program’s benefits.

But at least one member of that majority — which so far has blocked a modest expansion of the program — said at the board’s Thursday meeting he’d be interested in exploring alternatives to provide the program for free to more of Jefferson County’s neediest students.

John Newkirk, secretary of the Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education, said he’d entertain the possibility of expanding the district’s offering of free full-day kindergarten to all students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, a proxy for poverty.

He asked the district’s staff to provide him with the estimated cost of doing so.

“We still have 60 days,” he said, referring to the amount of time before the board must finalize the district’s budget, which must be approved by June 30. The first day of the fiscal year is July 1.

Newkirk made the request during discussion on a motion made by board member Lesley Dahlkemper to fund 13 additional kindergarten classes at 5 campuses. It was her second attempt of the evening to have the board approve the $600,000 line item. Both times, the majority blocked the request.

District staff first suggested the expansion at an April 3 meeting.

Officials believe expanding the program would have a positive impact on student achievement and would provide the resources to students and teachers to meet the boards academic goals.

But the board’s majority didn’t buy it.

Board president Ken Witt last night reiterated his concerns about how the program’s expansions targets specific schools, not students, and that the district had no local data to illustrate the benefits of full-day kindergarten.

Under the current proposal, Jeffco would offer full day kindergarten for free to all students, regardless of their parents’ income, who attended a school that’s total population included at least 35 percent of students at or below the poverty line.

That means in some instances, 65 percent of students whose parents could otherwise afford to pay the $300 for a second half-day of instruction would get the program for free, goes Witt’s logic.

Witt said creating a sliding scale for kindergarten tuition could be an plausible option.

Jeffco currently offers free half-day kindergarten to all students. And about 40 full-day kindergarten classrooms across the large suburban district are also free because those schools have at least 36.8 percent of its students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. None of the classrooms are in jeopardy of being closed.

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PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco board member Lesley Dahlkemper, left, speaks with parents during a break at the board’s May 2 meeting at Bear Creek High School.

Dahlkemper’s push for the board to expand the free kindergarten program came during a report from district staff on writing achievement goals.

While Jeffco students meet or exceed the state’s proficiency scores on average, middle school growth scores, or how the state measures how much a student learns year-to-year, are slightly below the state’s requirement.

Dahlkemper wondered out loud if expanding the kindergarten program could help the district boost scores.

Earlier in the evening one group of parents presented data they had collected showing greater positive outcomes for students of full-day kindergarten.

“Your goals focus on mastery of content standards at every grade level and each student achieving at least one year’s growth every year,” said Tina Gurdikian during her group testimony. “Additional board goals focus on academic achievement as measured by testing. It is your duty and obligation to provide funding towards meeting those ends. The research and body of evidence supports the educational benefits of full-day kindergarten over half-day kindergarten.”

Funding free full-day kindergarten is just one of many politically charged conversations in Jeffco.

Dozens of parents, teachers, and students spoke out Thursday in support of their teachers.

Prior to the meeting more than 400 teachers and the supporters rallied outside Bear Creek High School where the board meeting was held.

The union and district are in the midsts of tense negotiations. The union is concerned its teachers will not be given the raises they’ve been promised — despite nearly $12 million being earmarked in the budget to do so. The union declared an impasse last month.

The board’s majority is also trying to equalize funding between its district run schools and charters. A few charter supporters thanked the board’s work to provide them with more money.

Parent presentation to the Jeffco board