How far should the Haines Borough School District go in preparing children to enter kindergarten?

That question was at the center of a school board discussion last week when the board voted 4-3 against participating in a grant request aimed at early childhood learning.

The “Prime Time to Learn” grant would pay for a seven-month program, including classes and activities aimed at parents of young children. It sought $20,000 from the Rueben E. Crossett Endowed Alaskan Fund and $7,000 in district wages.

Grant funds would pay for equipment, such as infant wet suits and strollers, as well as light suppers as an incentive to get parents involved, and parent transportation.

Endorsed by district administrators, the grant was pursued by teacher Jeanne Kitayama, the district’s early literacy coordinator. Kitayama would have supervised the program starting in May.

The program would have held classes to “empower parents with the knowledge, practice and support to raise healthy young children so that they enter school eager and ready to learn,” according to Kitayama’s proposal.

“Early childhood literacy is about what children know about language before they actually learn to read and write… As parents learn the benefits of nutrition, exercise, physical and emotional health, and then support each other to put them into regular practice, year after year this knowledge will spread to enrich the lives of children and adults alike,” Kitayama wrote.

Kitayama said her participation was “to get the parent classes started and show they can be self-sustaining once they get the boost to get them going.”

School board member Anne Marie Palmieri, who voted against the grant proposal, characterized her “no” vote as concerning jurisdiction, suggesting the project may be better suited for local preschools. Members Brenda Jones, Brian Clay and Sarah Swinton also voted in opposition.

“There’s definitely merit and validity in the grant proposal (but) I don’t think the school board’s the one to head that, especially with declining enrollment,” Palmieri said after the meeting. “There’s a projection that enrollment is going to be going down next year as well. We need to be more conservative in our spending and what we obligate ourselves to.”

Principal Cheryl Stickler said that by training parents, Kitayama’s request was forward-looking and in line with district goals to bring all students up to reading-level standards by third grade.

Stickler said offering activities as a way of enlisting parents to work with their children was important. “Parents will not come to meetings about enriching the vocabularies of their toddlers.”

“We’ve been talking a couple years now. When (students) come to us in kindergarten, they can already be two years behind (in reading skills). If we don’t have this kind of program… We can wait for the state legislature to get in gear and make it happen…or we can do it. And I would prefer in our community, we have the resources, the heart and connections to make that happen. And it does take all of those,” Stickler said.

School board member Ardy Miller said: “The better prepared we can have kids when they come in, the easier our job’s going to be for the next 12 years, not just for kindergarten or first grade… We’re not doing it for them, we’re doing it for us.”

But board member Swinton suggested the school had overstepped its mandate. “We have to remember we’re funded by the state for K-12. That’s what our job is. I think we’ve stepped off a little bit, worrying about little kids.”

Board chair Jones said literacy was a prime concern of hers but she was worried about “mission creep.” “We’ve got declining enrollment and uncertain funding. What’s unfortunate when you start programs like this, there’s the expectation to maintain it. I worry about perception in the community when we don’t do it the next year as well.”

Kitayama is working as a long-term substitute teacher through mid-March. She typically works 20 hours per week for the district on early childhood literacy, K-5 classroom support and MAP, the district’s computer-based student assessment program.