Sunday, February 24, 2008

Kindergarten Readiness

Once upon a time, a child turned five years old somewhere on or before their school system's mandatory cut-off date, the parent enrolled them in the kindergarten near their home, and when September rolled around, they boarded the bus for their first half day of organized academia. End of story.

Well let me tell you, folks, those times are apparently long gone.

Nowadays, a kids school career begins at two, or maybe three-years-old, with half-day preschool several days a week. Kindergarten is all day, five days a week. Neighborhood schools are a luxury, lost to well-meaning but ultimately ill-conceived diversity efforts. Traditional summers are fading away, being replaced by year-round calendars that allow for more students, and supposedly better information retention by students. There are private schools, magnet schools, Montessori schools, and traditional public schools, all competing for students, all boasting their own accelerated academic program. Meeting and exceeding academic standards is in the back of every administrators mind, and parents worry from their children's birth about college admissions officers.

No wonder then, that kindergarten readiness is the new buzz word, at least among the parents of four-to-five year old set.

Kindergarten readiness. Had I known what a headache that catch phrase would become, I would have planned more, tried harder, not to have a late summer or early fall baby!

But being that rare breed of parent who did not have a college savings plan started in advance of conception, I had no clue whatsoever to the roller coaster ride that marks the beginning of a child's academic career.

We started our oldest daughter in preschool at age three. I hadn't even considered preschool until our pediatrician, at my daughter's September two-year-old well-baby visit asked what my plans were. Preschool admissions took place, after all, in January for the following year. I had no idea, and no plans for that matter, to worry about preschool until she was four.

Unfortunately, what with the huge competition for preschool slots (parents at some schools actually form a line outside their school of choice in the early morning hours so as to be first to sign up for a coveted slot) I was advised to go ahead and enroll in the three-year-old program, since those students get first choice for the four-year-old class. In other words, if I wanted to wait until my child was four, I'd be last on the waiting list for an available slot.

So here I am, two years later, a little more educated in the competitive nature of preschool, and preschool moms, but still totally clueless, apparently, about the next step.

See, my daughter, as I mentioned before, has an early September birthday.

Now, in Wake County, NC, which is a huge school system that comprises Raleigh and many of its suburbs, the kindergarten cutoff date is currently sometime in mid-to late October, but that date will be changing to August 31st in 2009. Hooray! I thought. My daughter will be five in September of 2008, which means she won't have to wait a whole extra year to start school.

The idea to me that after two years of preschool, she might have to wait ANOTHER year to start kindergarten was absurd.

Silly me. I didn't know, had no way of knowing, how many people out there push for parents to wait that extra year anyway, so that the very youngest kids wouldn't struggle in class.

Apparently, kindergarten is so much more academically challenging now, and so many people are, in fact, holding their kids out an extra year to give them an edge, that educators are actually discouraging parents from starting their summer and fall birthday children at the age of five.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not faulting the educators at all. I think they're truly looking out for the best interest of the kids. But where is the sense of reason among the administrators of the school systems, and further up the food chain, the politicians, who are putting so much pressure on educators to get kids to pass those stupid end of grade tests mandated by No Child Left Behind.

Because that's really what's driving all of this nonsense. Educators need to have their students pass the EOG's in third grade, or they risk losing funding. So they push to teach kids more information at a younger grade, push them more, forgo the half-day kindergarten, push, push, push. As a result, parents, terrified their kids won't be able to handle the pressure, hold them off for another year.

As it happens, my daughter is fairly bright. She keeps up with the other kids academically, she communicates maturely, clearly. She does fine, socially. But, much to her teacher's concern, her attention span is a bit on the short side. Of course, she's four. Most four-year-olds have short attention spans. But this is not, apparently, a good sign when it comes to KINDERGARTEN READINESS.

During January parent teacher conferences, my daughter's teacher dropped the big bomb on my husband and me. She didn't feel that our daughter was ready for kindergarten. It seems that she has difficulty sitting still during circle time, occasionally getting up and wandering around the classroom. And at times, she was distracted during centers or playground.

I took issue with her characterization. Would she have felt the same way had my daughter had a June birthday? Were we dealing with a quiet discrimination against September? And further, my daughter had a good six months before she'd be starting school. Any parent with kids in that age range know how much they mature and change in a year's period of time. How could anyone possibly predict that she might or might not be ready in a few months?

We wondered, my husband and I, was our daughter bored? Was she wandering around during centers because she hadn't been told that it wasn't acceptable to do so? Was the teacher unfairly characterizing her? Was she misreading her? Or was she right?

So me being me, I Googled. I Yahooed. I talked to my mother, my sister, my friends, other moms. My husband and I visited some magnet schools and talked to the administrators and teachers there.

The thing is, opinions on this, as on everything, vary. Educators invariably told us to wait. Every single article on the subject was full of tales of parents whose kids did start early and ultimately struggled. They tended to be light on examples of kids who started early and thrived, even though I think any reasonable person knows there are plenty of those kids out there. Some people couldn't understand why we were so frustrated - it's just kindergarten, right?

And the thing is, I think what we ultimately found, is that it depends entirely on the individual child. And we eventually got a big grip on reality, took a deep breath, and realized that, yes, it is just kindergarten. In fact, most of the kindergarten classes I've visited look an awful lot like our daughter's preschool class. And one teacher did offer the encouraging fact that most kids coming into kindergarten are coming from many different backgrounds and experiences but they all come together to the same place at some point in the year. It was nice to hear.

Recently, the local paper published a column about kindergarten readiness. It cited maturity level and attention span as the most important factor, and my daughter's preschool teacher was sure to show it to me one morning when I dropped my daughter off at school.

I assured her I had read it already, and let her know we'd decided to enroll our daughter in kindergarten anyway. I think she'd be bored in transitional kindergarten, our alternate option to the tune of $300 a month. I think she'll really be fine making that next step.

If she struggles, so be it. Perhaps we'll repeat her if it's really not going well. I don't think she'll be emotionally scarred, at five-years-old, for having to repeat a grade. Perhaps I'll beat myself up for not making the right decision. Perhaps she'll thrive.

Time will tell.

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