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Minnetonka Public Schools has signaled it will rein in its practice of allowing dozens of students a year to repeat kindergarten — action that follows a visit from state education officials.

At issue is a program, Ready-Start Kindergarten (RSK), designed for 5-year-olds with summer birthdays, but one that sees only a small percentage of kids moving on to first grade.

Instead, the children advance the following year to more traditional kindergarten classrooms, leaving state and local taxpayers to cover not just one but two years of kindergarten costs for those students. Currently, RSK brings in nearly $1 million a year in state aid and local levy money.

That a school system would allow a large number of students to repeat kindergarten — almost in blanket fashion — is highly unusual. In 2018-19, for example, Minnetonka had 101 RSK students, and this year, 96 of them are attending kindergarten again in the district.

Minnetonka says it was the parents' choice, but the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), concerned by what Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker described as "a pattern of significantly higher rates of kindergarten retention" in the district, stepped in and now is working with the district to ensure parents are better informed about first grade.

As a result, RSK families can expect a different conversation when finalizing next year's plans at schools this spring.

Said JacQueline Getty, the district's spokeswoman, "We will be encouraging RSK parents to realize their children are ready for first grade and encouraging them to move their children forward."

The education department acted on a parent's complaint, but it was not the first time the district had drawn fire over the RSK program.

Then Minnetonka was called out by the superintendent of a nearby district.

'Cutthroat' competition

Parents with children who turn 5 years old in the months before kindergarten often wrestle with the question: Should we have them start school now — knowing they will be the youngest in their classrooms — or should we wait a year?

Minnetonka says it has tailored its RSK program to the attention spans of less mature children and provides them opportunities to strengthen social and emotional skills. It is part of a broad array of programs that Minnetonka has used to attract students from other districts via open enrollment. This year, 37.5% of elementary students come from outside its borders, bringing with them the revenue the district deems essential to its operations. Critics, however, say the school system's aggressive open enrollment strategy has led to overcrowding.

While the district states it is preparing RSK students for first grade, many parents view the program as a steppingstone to regular kindergarten.

In 2008, David Jennings, then the superintendent of what now is the Eastern Carver County Schools, wrote to state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren saying some of his parents placed their children in Minnetonka's RSK program believing it was a preschool program and then sought to enroll them in kindergarten in his district.

"Alice, I have no problem with competition. I was a supporter of open enrollment before you were even in the Legislature and I can compete with the best of them," he wrote. "What I can't understand or accept is for the competition to become so cutthroat that parents are told anything less than the full and explicit truth about the programs involved."

His e-mail, obtained by the Star Tribune through a state data-practices act request, drew a fiery response from Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson. He wrote in a letter to Jennings that RSK was hardly the "kindergarten lite" program that Jennings described and took issue with his request for an Education Department investigation.

"Superintendents in Minnesota generally address issues of concern between districts in a more collaborative mode," Peterson wrote. "In this case, I could have helped you understand how you have confused a couple of matters and responded to your baseless allegations."

Seagren concluded then that there were no "systemic issues" with the RSK program.

Last month, however, MDE returned to Minnetonka seeking answers about its kindergarten retention practices.

Surprised parent

The department's visit followed a complaint to the state from a parent who had enrolled her son in RSK believing it was a preschool program and then put him in kindergarten. Later, the son attended school in another district, requiring the mother to obtain his transcript from Minnetonka. She was stunned to find that it showed him taking two years of kindergarten — making it appear, she said, that he had been held back.

The mother, who asked MDE not to share her name with the district, is not alone in viewing RSK as a preschool program. This fall, school board challengers running under the banner, "4TONKA," described it that way and echoed the transcript concerns, prompting Peterson to write a letter to RSK parents criticizing what he described as a fabricated effort to distort the district's messages.

"Instead of contacting the district about their questions, these people directed their efforts toward creating a problem for the students, their parents and the district with MDE," he wrote. "The intent of that effort may be to destroy the opportunity for other students in the future to have RSK available."

Now, four months later, tough questions have been asked, changes are being made and both the district and MDE are moving ahead as partners.

A week from now, the district will have finished notifying families as to whether they landed their open enrollment choices. Getty was asked if any were awaiting word about RSK.

"Yes," she wrote in an e-mail, "there are parents of open-enrolling students who want RSK, but will only be offered regular kindergarten."