Changing the age gap in kindergarten, 50 students at a time

In an effort to narrow the age range in the lowest elementary school grades, the state Senate has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would require most children to start school when they’re 6 years old.

But this shift alone is not likely to narrow the wide age gap that currently exists in kindergarten classrooms across the state: Legislative researchers estimate fewer than 50 students would be impacted each year.

Changing the kindergarten age has been a hot topic at the State Capitol in recent months, as education officials and legislators have both said the current age range–from 4 1/2 to over 7 years old–makes it difficult for teachers to meet the needs of all the children in the classroom.

Separate bills are before the state legislature now to narrow that gap. The bill to close the gap at the top of the range requires parents to enroll their children if they will turn 6 during the school year. Officials at the State Department of Education have said some parents, particularly in the state’s more affluent communities, delay enrollment of their children in an effort to put their child at the front of the class, both for academic reasons and for sports.

It was originally estimated by the State Department of Education that this would bump 1,600 older students into first grade, but that estimate was recently scaled back to 50 students.

Senate Republican Leader John P. McKinney said “the more important issue” is changing the entrance age, and asked the Democratic leaders if they plan to act on the bill that raises the minimum kindergarten age.

Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford and co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, said she does plan to bring up the bill, which would require children entering kindergarten to be 5 years old as of Oct. 1 of the school year. Current law says they must be 5 as of Jan. 1.

That change is expected to disqualify 6,700 students away each year who would have previously been guaranteed a seat in kindergarten, and early childhood education advocates say that would leave many low-income children at a disadvantage. They want the state to guarantee pre-school subsidies for poor children excluded from kindergarten.

Stillman said the cost of those subsidies would be “quite extraordinary.”