24 July 2013

Kindergarten and Pre-School and How Old Are You Anyway?

Before I went to first grade, I went to half day kindergarten. And before that, I went to preschool. It was a progressive cooperative nursery school, run out of the Unitarian Church in the next town, and I remember learning how to make jello there. I think we also made Christmas tree ornaments out of Elmer’s glue and sawdust and we definitely had naptime every day, on little rugs brought from home. Mine was red cotton, with long twisty shags.

In those days, nursery school wasn’t the norm. I think only a handful of the kids in my kindergarten class had gone to nursery school. Why my mother thought to send us there, I’m not sure, but that’s what she did.

When our child was 20 months old, we packed her off to daycare. Certainly a good part of the reason for daycare was that both my husband and I were working and we needed a solution for childcare. Daycare, in a group setting, appealed to me more than the solitude of one on one with a nanny. It was also cheaper, and it afforded all the benefits of nursery school – it was childcare and preschool all wrapped into one.

Back in January, during the State of the Union address, President Obama threw his support behind universal preschool:

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

I’m wholeheartedly behind that.

But I’m confused about something. In New York State, where I live, children are not required to go to school until they’re six years old – unless they live in New York City, in which case they have to go to school at five as of next year. As you might expect in the United States, there is no national standard for compulsory schooling - states rights, they get to make the rules. In nine states, school starts at five. In 25 states, it’s six. In 15 states, you go when you’re seven. And in Pennsylvania and Washington, you don’t have to go to school until you’re eight. That’s not to say that kids don’t go to school earlier, it’s just that they aren’t required to go earlier. Another way to put it is that, in New York State, except in NYC (and Syracuse and Rochester), kindergarten is optional.

The change in the requirements for NYC is a recent development – it was passed a year ago and kicks in with the coming school year. According to an article in the Times at the time the bill was passed, roughly 3000 kids a year begin first grade without having gone to kindergarten. That’s about 4% of the school population – not a huge number, but not insignificant. Further, the change means that kids can’t be redshirted – if the parent agrees to put the kid in first grade in the next year, they can skip kindergarten – but they can’t start kindergarten a year late.

This is all very interesting.

But back to pre-school. How is it possible to expand preschool nationwide, if there isn't a national standard as to when a kid is supposed to start school in the first place? The cut-off dates are all over the place, and the starting age of compulsory schooling ranges from five to eight. If across the board all children had to begin kindergarten in September of the calendar year in which they turn five, wouldn't that be a good thing? Once that's codified, move back and offer a year of preschool for every child beginning in September of the calendar year in which they turn four. [Or change the cut-off to August 31 instead of December 31.] But make it consistent, states rights be damned.


State by State Compulsory ages: http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/07/03/10703.pdf

New York State Education Law: http://public.leginfo.state.ny.us/LAWSSEAF.cgi?QUERYTYPE=LAWS+&QUERYDATA=$$EDN3205$$@TXEDN03205+&LIST=LAW+&BROWSER=BROWSER+&TOKEN=47365689+&TARGET=VIEW

NYC Chancellor’s Regulation: http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/1CC25F63-74E8-41A6-8031-490F206F148D/0/A101.pdf


S said...

Interesting - I never thought of it quite this way. But you're right.

ozma said...

I'm not sure why there has to be mandatory schooling at that age in order to expand as long as most people do send their kids to school--which they do.

But I guess the problem is if there is a curriculum in 1st grade buidling off the curriculum in earlier grades the kids entering later will be at a huge disadvantage?

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Although my children all attended preschool, it was just 2 to 3 days a week. I know the things we did in the time they weren't at school were very important to them--beach, museums, learning at home--so I would be very reluctant to have been MANDATED to give this up.

That said, I think universal access to preschool would be a very good thing.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

And I know my upper middle-class reservations about this make me part of a lucky minority.

leanne said...

So I had to look up and see what the policy is for my state. I thought Wisconsin was a "you can skip kindergarten if you want, but you must start school at age 6." But a law was passed in 2009 that changed things. Sort of. Parents are not required to enroll their children in kindergarten, but in order to enroll in first grade the child either needs to have completed kindergarten or received an exemption.

I'm on board with having all kids start kindergarten at the age of 5.