Education Opinion

Jump Start

By Tamara Fisher — June 16, 2008 8 min read
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Today’s post has been uploaded for you via an analog cell phone signal at a campground in Nebraska. Isn’t technology amazing‽ (I’ve been here for a few days celebrating my aunt & uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary.) Summer is upon me now and I’m bound and determined to catch things up here at Teacher Magazine for all of you. I apologize for not keeping up during my unusually busy spring. But… onward nonetheless!

“Congratulations! You’re ready for Kindergarten! But – oh – You’re going to have to wait a year until you can actually go…”

That’s how I began my presentation to our School Board about a month ago. For many years, my district has allowed early-entrance to Kindergarten, although the process has been revised in recent years. “Polished” may be a better word to use because we found and created more accurate ways of determining readiness. Essentially, if a child turns five after September 10th but before October 31st and tests two standard deviations (or more) above the mean on our readiness assessment, the child may come. If the child would turn five after October 31st, then additional (i.e. IQ and other) assessments are done. We’ve had children enter under both categories in recent years and all are doing wonderfully. So philosophically, I know my district “gets it.”

Yet the reality of running a school district is that other factors, like budget and space constraints, are of significant importance, too. Hence my need to advocate recently. Here’s the situation…

The Montana Legislature passed funding in 2007 for districts to begin optional full-time Kindergarten programs in their schools (based on research showing the short- and long-term benefits of all-day Kindergarten vs. half-day Kindergarten). Well, nearly every district in the state decided to go for it. Most still allow parents the option of half or full day Kindergarten (again – Montana is an independent, local control state and the Legislature knew that the only way to pass the bill was to allow these kinds of options.) In our district, for example, the core academics are covered in the morning and parents can pick their kids up at 11:30 if they only want their child to go to half-day Kindergarten (a few do, but most come for the whole day). In larger districts, separate classes were created just for the half-day kids.

Anyway, one net effect of this new option in my district was that our Kindergarten enrollment grew significantly this past year. Montana accreditation standards only allow for 20 students per class in grades K-2, and we bumped over that limit in a few classrooms. For the past decade+ we’ve been steady at six Kindergarten classes, so 120 or fewer total Kindergartners. Going over that number and still maintaining our accreditation means two options: hiring a new teacher (and finding a classroom for her & the students in a building that doesn’t have any extra classroom space) or hiring aides to help out in the classrooms that are over 20 students (which we did). Both options are expensive options for a Title I district that isn’t exactly flush with cash and whose voters didn’t pass a recent levy.

Can you see where I’m going with this? ;o)

We did our Kindergarten Round-Up (i.e. screening and enrollment for the 2008-2009 school year) in April and a couple of handfuls of parents brought their kids through to see if they might qualify for early entrance to Kindergarten, two of which did. Yet our overall Kindergarten enrollment numbers for next year are looking to be a mirror of this year, meaning we’re likely going to be bumping over our 20-per-class limit again and are once again facing two expensive options for dealing with that. This is when the powers that be in my district drafted a language change that would essentially say kids can enter Kindergarten early 1) if they qualify as ready, AND 2) if there’s space available for them.

Obviously I wasn’t too keen on this proposed new addition of language.

For one thing, the parents wouldn’t know until after the first week of school if space would be available for their early-entrance-ready child. The child would miss that all-important first week of school when everything about how school works is explained. Secondly, the new procedure would be applied retroactively to the two children who qualified under the procedure that was in place at the time of our April Kindergarten Round-Up – which said nothing then about “space available.” And lastly, IT’S JUST NOT RIGHT. Here (slightly paraphrased) is how I explained it to our School Board:

Congratulations! You’re ready for Kindergarten! But – oh – You’re going to have to wait a year until you can actually go…

I’m here tonight to advocate for what is best for the children. Granted, it’s a very small handful of children I’m talking about, but their learning needs are still just as valid as any other child’s learning needs. Basically, I’m here doing what you hired me to do.

The rationale behind allowing early entrance to Kindergarten is based on recognition of the fact that some kids are ahead of the game. The early entrance strategy bases enrollment in these cases on the question, “Is the child ready?” not “When was the child born?” Fifty years of research support all forms of acceleration, including early entrance to Kindergarten, for children who need it.

(I cited the Nation Deceived documents and even ordered a free copy that I gave to our Board and Superintendent.)

Our policy, for many years now, has allowed for early entrance because we know that there are children for whom it’s an important and viable option.

HOWEVER – This possible proposed procedure change would in essence un-do all of that.

By allowing early entrance with a “space available” caveat, we would actually be reverting to a process that falls back on “when was the child born” instead of “is the child ready.”

We would be placing ourselves into a potential position of telling parents, “Your child is READY for Kindergarten, but we’re going to make that child wait a whole year for the opportunity.”

And why would we be making the child wait? Because we’d be giving a higher priority to logistics than we would be giving to the priority of a child’s learning.

And guess what? A year later, that child is no longer ready for Kindergarten. That child will be ready for something beyond Kindergarten. These kids don’t stagnate. A year later, I’d be in the position of probably looking into needing to grade skip these kids. Our numbers aren’t changing. It’s either a numbers problem now or it’s a numbers problem when they’re skipped, but the problem doesn’t go away by making these kids wait a year for the learning opportunity that WE determined they were ready for.

The child’s readiness is and should be the most relevant factor.

A parent of one of the two children in question then spoke to her dismay that she began this process under one set of rules, made decisions for her family with that in mind, and now the rules were being changed on her (and her family) half-way through the game.

A vote wasn’t taken that night. The powers that be met in the intervening time and discussed the issue, the district’s options, etc. Last week (the night before our last day of school and the night I was packing to leave on my trip), the Board met again to vote on whether or not these two children could come to Kindergarten next year. (Interestingly, I found out about this whole issue – and it being on the agenda at both of these meetings – through the aforementioned parent, not through my district. But that’s another issue…) So (despite the bad timing for me) I went because of the importance I knew the decision held.

The Superintendent recommended that – despite the risk of going over enrollment limits – the two children be allowed to enter Kindergarten early. She cited my points from the previous meeting, as well as the parent’s concern of retroactivity, as key factors in her decision to recommend enrollment now for these kids.

It was moved, seconded, thoroughly discussed, and passed (unanimously). Yay!

But the usual questions came up. “Have you considered that your child will be the last one to get his driver’s license?” one Board member asked a parent. “My child was in this same birthday window, and we had him wait until he enrolled by his birth date and he did just fine through school,” another said. The parents of the two early-entrance candidates did a fabulous job of countering those “concerns” with their own concerns… that their children be adequately challenged in school, that their children learn when they’re ready to learn, that their children develop work and study habits rather than skate through a year later when it would all be so much easier.

For these two children, the roadblocks have been removed. That doesn’t mean my district still won’t consider adding the “space available” caveat for future school years. I may still have my work cut out for me on that one. But the decision last week gives me hope that there is still understanding here of the difference between “is the child ready” and “when was the child born.”

So much about these kids and their need for alternative learning options is misunderstood. Advocacy is SUCH an important means of beginning to overcome those misperceptions. But it’s also a dicey prospect to take on. When it comes to gifted kids, it often means educating first – educating others about gifted kids and their needs – and THEN advocating. Because until the decision-makers understand why and how these kids are different, they’ll be less likely to understand why and how learning options need to be different for them. When it comes to advocating for gifted children, I follow Aristotle’s advice: “The fool persuades me with his reasons. The wise man persuades me with my own.” Let’s all be wise men and women and find ways to advocate for the gifted kids in our own schools and communities that educate while we advocate.

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.