It’s a question parents have long had to answer: Should they send their child to kindergarten at age 5, or wait a year until they believe their child is ready?
Last school year, one in 12 children old enough to attend kindergarten were not enrolled.
And while the parents of many of these children may hope the extra year of preschool and development will mean their children are better prepared for school or ahead of their classmates when they start kindergarten, state officials at the Office of Early Childhood want to outlaw the practice.
“The OEC recommends that the provision that allows parents to wait to have their children attend kindergarten until that child is age 6 or 7 be eliminated,” reads a new 21-page report on kindergarten entrance requirements from the state agency.
State law allows parents to have their children start kindergarten when they are as young as 4 years and 8 months old. But parents can also wait until their child is 6 or 7 to enroll.
Narrowing the age span – as the state agency recommends – would largely impact the state’s most affluent towns. For example, one in four students in Darien, New Canaan and Wilton kindergarten classrooms could have enrolled one year earlier. (See district-by-district statistics below.)
Such a shift is likely to generate pushback from parents.
“To me, this really should be a parent’s choice. Does the parent believe the child is going to be successful? That’s what it should come down to,” said Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross, who spoke as a parent and not as the chair of Darien’s school board.
For many parents, this decision is an economic one, since the average cost of preschool in Connecticut is $211 per week, or almost $11,000 per year.
In New Britain – where the average household income is the second lowest in the state – just one in 40 kindergarten students waited a year to enroll in kindergarten.
“Everybody wants to send their kids early here. I’ve literally seen kids at the Board of Education meetings trying to make the case on why they should be able to go to school early,” said Merrill Gay, a member of New Britain’s school board and executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, which represents daycare providers.
Pamela Munro has seen what sending a child to school early or late means.
Munro is a retired kindergarten teacher in Windham, a member of the Salem Board of Education and the mother of a so-called “ber baby” – a term that refers to children born from September through December and whose parents typically face this decision.
“Many of them were not developmentally ready for kindergarten so we were always playing catch-up,” she recollected of her tenure as a teacher in one of the state’s poorest communities.
Munro elected to send her daughter to school the first year she was eligible, a decision she said meant her daughter was regularly the youngest among her friends and classmates.
“It seemed like it would be fine, but she was often at different stages than her peers,” said Munro of her daughter, who is now in her mid-20s.
Salem has one of the highest rates among Connecticut districts of parents opting to wait a year to enroll their children in kindergarten, state data from the 2014-15 school year show.
In making its recommendation to narrow who is eligible for kindergarten, the Office of Early Childhood highlights its concerns that a wide disparity in age could make it difficult for kindergarten teachers to properly educate all of their students.
“Having a consistent age span allows districts to establish curricular and instructional practices that are age-appropirate,” reads the state report.
“If lower income students who cannot afford to pay for an extra year of preschool enter kindergarten on time, while students whose families have the resources to attend another year of preschool are held out, the result is a wide disparity in age and experience for children in kindergarten classrooms. This disparity may impact the instructional and curriculum practices in kindergarten classrooms and may further contribute to the preparation gap,” the state report says.
The state agency recommends local school boards be able to waive the age requirement on a case-by-case basis, if warranted.
The practice of holding off enrollment is often referred to as “redshirting”, an athletic reference to the practice of giving athletes a competitive advantage by delaying their participation in games so they are physically more mature and able to perform better.
Research on whether “redshirting” students gives older students an academic edge in inconclusive.
“Greater variation in age and ability within a classroom may have important consequences for children‘s learning opportunities if it affects the pedagogical approach a teacher takes or the overall classroom climate,” research from professors at Stanford and the University of Virginia warn. “We leave the investigation of how parental decisions and cohort composition shape instructional practices and collective outcomes for future research.”
“The achievement of redshirts is comparable to their normally entered peers,” reports researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Lehigh University. “Given its lack of empirical efficacy, we do not support widespread use of this strategy for increasing readiness.”
“The association between achievement test scores and entrance age appears during the first months of kindergarten, declines sharply in subsequent years, and is especially pronounced among children from upper-income families, a group likely to have accumulated the most skills prior to school entry,” report researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Illnois.
Michael Burke of Darien said he’s noticed no impact from having his twin “ber babies” be the older kids in their classes.
“I haven’t noticed any difference or any extra benefit to them being a little older,” he said of his sons, now in middle school. “For us, the decision came down to us not wanting them to be the youngest in their class.”
Connecticut officials have not yet done an analysis of whether the age disparity has impacted academic performance or social development.
Last school year, 2,550 kindergarten or first grade students had to repeat a grade in districts across Connecticut. It’s unclear whether these students were enrolled in districts where a high rate of students were “redshirted” or entered at the first opportunity.
Different state, same debate
Kindergarten entrance policies are a topic of considerable debate in other states, as well.
However, Connecticut is the only state that requires local school districts to provide kindergarten to such young students, reports the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm.
Connecticut law requires districts to offer enrollment to students who turn 5 before Jan. 1. Thirty-two other states require that a child turn 5 by Sept. 1 to enroll in kindergarten. Ten more states set a cut-off birthday before Oct. 1 .
But state officials do not have the appetite to push back the start date to align with other states. They estimate such a shift would make 6,500 children no longer eligible for kindergarten each year.
The Office of Early Childhood concludes thousands of those affected would come from low-income families, and worries there would be no educational alternative for them. Until the state achieves universal access to preschool, such a shift “may further inequities” and would be irresponsible, the office states.
The state still has a long way to go before it reaches universal preschool for the state’s 3- and 4-year olds. State officials reported earlier this year that 10,109 children from low-income families — nearly one-third of poor students — cannot afford to enroll in a high-quality preschool program. To provide universal access to preschool, districts would have to add 814 more preschool classrooms.
Such an expansion would cost at least $88.8 million, the Office of Early Childhood reports.
For that reason, the House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee said requiring that students be older to enter kindergarten is not feasible.
“If the state is going to make it impossible to enter kindergarten, then we want to make sure there is some alternative. There is a real danger that we may block these children from any educational setting” by changing the cutoff date, said state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. “I will not tell a family that education will have to wait a year. It’s better for a child to enter a little younger.”
The legislature’s research team reports that this dilemma has stalled numerous plans over the last two decades to move the entrance age to align with those in other states.
Now the state agency seeks to tackle the age disparity by instead lowering the age by which children must enter kindergarten.
Connecticut is one of 15 states that allow students to enroll in school as late as age 7, and two states allow enrollment up to age 8. However, Connecticut and Nevada are the only states that require children to attend kindergarten before first grade and provide parents with the option to delay starting school until so late, data from the Education Commission of the State shows.
By requiring students to enter school at a younger age — and effectively ending “redshirting” as the Office of Early Childhood recommends — it will mean districts like Darien will have to accommodate dozens more kindergarten students in the year the transition took place.
“You are talking about four or five classrooms that would be needed for these students that would now need to enroll. That first year would have a financial impact,” said Daniel Brenner, the superintendent of Darien Public Schools.
Fleischmann said requiring students to enroll earlier — — is something he plans to push for in the upcoming legislative session.
“I will be happy to get this through my committee and both chambers,” he said.