Participation in the after-­school program Kids Inc. jumped by 66% in response to scheduling changes at Bend-La Pine Schools this academic year.

While most camps and programs remained stable this summer, enrollment in the after-school program increased from 696 to 1,158 elementary school students, according to the Bend Park & Recreation District.

“We are serving a lot more kids, and we knew there would be a lot more demand,” Matt ­Mercer, district recreation director told the park board Tuesday night.

The sharp increase was largely expected by the district. This year, grades kindergarten through fifth start class at 8 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., which reduced the need for a before-school program. But the need for an after-school program exponentially grew because middle school and high school students — who are often relied on as after-school babysitters for their younger siblings — now are at school an hour later.

To accommodate the need, the park district hired 35 more after-school specialists and expanded the program’s capacity from 700 students to 1,200. Individuals with each school worked to find more space in their buildings to handle the influx.

But even with the changes, the waitlist still hovers around 400 students — nearly the same as last year. And 12 of the 14 elementary schools are already at capacity.

“We’re not accommodating everyone that has a need, but we also don’t have substantially more people not being served in this program,” Mercer said.

But the same question from parents persist, he said.

“Why can’t we expand capacity more than we already are?” Mercer said.

There are several reasons, Mercer said. Despite being able to grow staffing by 40% this year, finding and keeping staff is a perennial issue. Last year, the program’s hiring manager had to hire 80 people to support 50 jobs over the course of the year to handle turnover.

“It’s not unlikely she has to do 100 hires to meet that need (this year),” he said.

So the district is hoping to attract and retain more staff this year with a pilot program that offers employment benefits and bonuses to certain positions.

“We really tried to sweeten the pot,” Mercer said.

Yet the program is inherently limited. There is only so much space that can be occupied, and so many staff hired, before safety and program quality is compromised.

“We get parents asking: The school can handle 500 kids, why can’t you take 500 kids?” Mercer said. “The difference is 500 kids are separated into 20 or so classrooms. … This is not a program that has that level of structure to it.

“It’s not going to end up in a quality, safe environment, if we try to run a two- to four-hour modified recess,” he continued.

The park board in general applauded the district’s ability to accommodate so many new students so quickly, but asked staff to explore other options so they could accommodate more.

Board member Ariel Mendez suggested looking into allowing children to share slots with other children by alternating days of the week, or finding a way to transport students to other park district sites.

“This has the potential to swallow us and become chaotic,” said board member ­Nathan Hovekamp.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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