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Boston scrambles to accommodate an influx of kindergartners

Leilana Mei Chen, 5, still does not know where she will attend kindergarten.

T. Kalifa for The Boston Globe

Leilana Mei Chen, 5, still does not know where she will attend kindergarten.

More than 300 kindergartners in Boston do not know which school they will attend this fall as the city’s school system confronts rising demand in some neighborhoods and a shortage of seats.

The predicament, just weeks before classes begin, prompted the Boston School Department this month to add two kindergarten classrooms in East ­Boston and one each in Dorchester and the South End, as well as to hire several teachers at the last minute.

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It is the second time the depart­ment has had to add kinder­garten classrooms for this fall to accommodate an unexpected increase in enrollment in the western and northern parts of the city, bringing the total number of newly created kindergarten classrooms for this fall to 12.

School officials say they are exploring the possibility of adding two more kindergarten classrooms in the coming weeks.

“This is the first year I’ve ­actually seen this amount of an unexpected increase in ­demand,” said Jerry Burrell, the School Department’s director of enrollment, planning, and support. “Usually, we are able to ­accommodate students coming to us. It’s hard to say if this is the beginning of a trend or a one-time deal.”

Boston has some flexibility in where it can add kindergarten classrooms because it does not operate a traditional neighborhood school system.

Instead, the School Department divides the city into three sprawling geographic regions, and parents in each area can choose among roughly two dozen schools.

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Admission to a specific school is not guaranteed, and every year hundreds of students wind up on waiting lists ­because all the schools their parents chose have filled up.

Five-year-old Leilana Chen of Chinatown is in such a bind. Her mother, Rui Yun Zhang, ­selected nine schools for her, but did not get any of them. On Tuesday, Zhang returned to a school registration site for the fourth time, hoping to try her luck again.

But the best she could do was get on a waiting list for one of the newly created classrooms in a far-flung corner of East Boston. She said the registration site would make no promises about finding a kinder­garten placement for her.

In the meantime, Zhang is holding off on buying Leilana a backpack, pencils, and other back-to-school items, not wanting to dash her hopes. As it is, Leilana keeps asking her mother why her friends have a school to go to, but she does not.

“I feel very helpless and disappointed,” Zhang said, speaking in ­Mandarin through an ­interpreter from the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood ­Center.

State law requires school districts to provide seats for all eligible kindergarten students, but attendance is not mandatory. Complicating matters in Boston: Many parents get a kindergarten seat for their child in the lottery but don’t tell the district they have decided to enroll in a charter, parochial, or private school. That makes it difficult for Boston to know at the start of the school year exactly how many classrooms it needs, causing some students to be ­assigned late.

Boston is looking to change the way it assigns students to help remedy the problem.

Initially, the city was bracing for a massive increase in kinder­garten enrollment, after experiencing a 25 percent surge in applications during the first round of registration. But the pace of registrations subsequently slowed.

Now, the School Department is planning on a 2.2 percent increase in kinder­garten enrollment as it prepares to welcome about 4,225 kindergarten students, approximately 100 more than last fall.

The enrollment increase has exacerbated a shortage of kinder­garten classrooms that Boston grappled with last year. School officials said that shortage was unrelated to the closing of four elementary schools and an early learning center a few months before the last school year began and attributed it to an influx of late-registering kinder­gartners and some program changes that require smaller class sizes.

The four schools adding kinder­garten classrooms for next month are the Trotter Elementary in Dorchester, the Blackstone Elementary in the South End, and Guild Elementary and Umana Academy, both in East Boston. This is the second additional kindergarten classroom being added at the Umana for this fall.

Other schools that are adding kindergarten classrooms, under plans announced in the spring, are Harvard-Kent in Charlestown, Mission Hill in Jamaica Plain, the Eliot in the North End, and the Haley and Sumner, both in Roslindale.

Also, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School in Roxbury, which is overseen by the Boston public schools, is opening this fall with two kinder­gartens.

Burrell said that he does not expect that parents of all the unassigned students will take one of the new seats. Some parents, he said, only want their children to attend certain schools; otherwise, they will pursue options elsewhere.

But he also pointed out that many other parents are still registering their children for kinder­garten and some will do so after the school year begins. The first day of kindergarten at most Boston public schools is Sept. 10, and the city’s annual “Countdown to Kindergarten” welcoming event will be held at the Boston Children’s Museum Aug. 28 at 4:30 p.m.

Councilor Michael Ross of Mission Hill, who represents many of the city’s northern neighborhoods, said it was a positive development that more parents are enrolling their children in the city’s school system.

“That wasn’t the case 10 or 15 years ago,” Ross said. “. . . More families are staying in the city, and more families are getting involved in the schools, and the schools are improving.”

Ross applauded the addition of seats at the Harvard-Kent and the Eliot, two popular schools, but questioned the wisdom of relocating Mission Hill K-8 from the north zone to the west zone, in Jamaica Plain, when the north zone has a shortage of seats.

The School Department is moving Mission Hill K-8 so its building can accommodate an expansion of Fenway High School. But even as Mission Hill K-8 moves, it will continue to register students from the north zone, according to the School Department’s website.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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