Bill to raise kindergarten age prompts concerns

An effort to change the date when children in Georgia can enroll in kindergarten has raised a larger question frequently debated by some parents and education experts: When is a child ready for kindergarten?

Some House Republicans are proposing a change to when Georgia students can enter kindergarten. Currently, children must be 5 on or before Sept. 1. The initial version of House Bill 100 required children to be 5 by Aug. 1 to enter kindergarten this fall.

On Friday, House Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, announced a substitute version of the bill. It would require students to be 5 by Aug. 1 to enroll in kindergarten for the 2016-17 school year or 5 by July 1 by the start of the 2017-18 school year and each year thereafter. A hearing about the legislation is scheduled for Monday.

Dickson said lawmakers wrote the bill after discussions with teachers who’ve said some children younger than five aren’t prepared for kindergarten. Richard Woods, Georgia’s new state superintendent, is also similarly concerned. He pitched the idea under consideration on the campaign trail.

“Some younger students, especially four-year-olds, are not developmentally ready for kindergarten,” Woods said in a statement. “Oftentimes their presence in a classroom requires teachers to provide pre-kindergarten services to the disadvantage of the older students.”

State education officials do not know how many students the change would affect. They say the Sept. 1 cutoff date was more appropriate when school began around Labor Day. Now, most Georgia school districts begin the school year near the beginning of August.

Stacie Buckley of Decatur had asked lawmakers to change the bill. Her 4-year-old daughter, Charlotte, turns 5 on Aug. 15 and would not have been able to enroll in kindergarten this year under the initial version. Buckley is still worried about the potential problems for some 3-year-olds.

“Pre-k and preschool enrollment for private and church-based schools are already closed or have wait lists,” she said. “No doubt those parents have already made pre-k plans and now either need to scramble to find a preschool slot or face having to repeat pre-k the following year.”

If the bill is approved, Georgia’s kindergarten birthday cutoff date would be among the earliest in the nation. Nineteen states, including Georgia, currently require a child to be 5 on or before Sept. 1 to enroll in kindergarten. Seven states let their local education agencies make the call.

Dale Farran, an Atlanta native who teaches child development classes at Vanderbilt University, is not a fan of the changes under consideration in Georgia. She said schools continue to make greater demands of children in kindergarten.

Farran was 4½ when walked into Mrs. Smith’s kindergarten classroom at Mary Lin Elementary School “a few” decades ago. The teacher didn’t have a desk, she remembered. Her classmates sat around a piano. They sang. They played. They learned, she said, how to “do school.”

“It was exactly what kindergarten was set up to do,” Farran said.

Farran said kindergarten has become more rigorous as America’s education and political leaders worried that U.S. children have fallen behind their counterparts in other parts of the world. Some parents, she noted, are delaying enrollment in school by a year — “redshirting” — to make sure their children are prepared for kindergarten. Farran believes a thoughtful national discussion is needed about the academic demands of kindergarten through third grade.

Mindy Binderman believes a closer look at pre-k and early care programs is necessary. Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, is worried about low-income families who don’t have access to quality early care and education.

“Those kids will not catch up,” Binderman said.

Dickson said it would be difficult to assess whether a child is ready for kindergarten on a case-by-case basis. Who’s responsible, he asked, if a 4-year-old is admitted to kindergarten and doesn’t perform well?

“It’s not easily done on a student-by-student basis,” said Dickson, a retired teacher.

Dickson noted bills change during the session. This one, he said, must still go through the Senate if it’s passed by the House.

“It still has a long way to go,” he said.

By Eric Stirgus
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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