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A Question of Age, Ability

State panel's proposal to delay kindergarten for youngest pupils should fund preschool for those who would have to wait, critics say.

August 07, 2004|Jean Merl and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

Lorraine Fong can pick them out in a heartbeat:

They can't sit still for long, follow directions, or work with other students. Some struggle to learn colors or numbers. And many of her school's youngest kindergarteners even have trouble executing the simplest drawings, said Fong, principal of Bennett Kew Elementary School in Inglewood.

"The ones who aren't ready usually draw stick figures that have legs, arms and hands coming out of their heads," she said.

So Fong, along with many other educators and early childhood experts, tentatively welcomed a recommendation by a special state commission that the birthday cutoff for kindergarten enrollment be moved from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. But their support was almost universally made conditional on the state's providing quality, affordable preschool for youngsters who would be kept out of kindergarten for an additional year. Parents seemed more leery.

"I would be hesitant to have children waiting and starting school later if we don't have preschool," said Kim Bishop, principal of Horace Mann Elementary School in Glendale. Almost all of the youngsters there enter kindergarten with limited English language skills and need to be in an educational setting as soon as possible, she said.

Most parents of pupils at Mann don't have the money for private preschool, she said. And space is limited in publicly funded classes for children younger than 5.

In recommending a change in the cutoff date for kindergarten, framers of the California Performance Review, a 2,500-page report officially released Tuesday, heaped fuel on a debate that goes back at least two decades in California and dovetails with a national trend toward excluding younger children.

The recommendation worried parents who would have to scramble for kindergarten alternatives for children born later in the year.

Still other parents said that debating the cutoff date misses the point: They say a child's readiness, not chronological age, should determine kindergarten entrance.

Hilin Sarkisian, a Glendale mother of three, knows how difficult it can be to find space in an affordable preschool. She wanted to put her toddler son, Mina, in Head Start, only to be confronted with a long waiting list. So she cares for her youngsters at home, postponing her own dream of returning to school.

"It's better when they start younger," Sarkisian said, "because they learn more."

Jose Guadalupe also opposes changing the rules. His daughter Veronica, 4, is in kindergarten at Glendale's Mann Elementary, and he says her early start has helped her learn to write her name, identify shapes and speak English.

He wants his 3-year-old, Victoria, to have the same opportunity as her sister.

"I prefer that she be in school" as soon as possible, Guadalupe said, "because she will learn something -- like English."

Around the nation, the practice of excluding younger children from kindergarten has increasingly found favor since the 1980s, when kindergartens started becoming more academic as part of a drive to improve students' overall achievement.

Priscilla Wohlstetter, a USC education professor, said the state report's recommendation could be a smart educational decision, given the added achievement pressures put on schools by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and a trend toward replacing traditional half-day kindergartens with full-day sessions.

"What we expect of kindergarteners today is far more advanced than what we expected even five years ago," Wohlstetter said. "As these expectations increase, I am not sure that anyone under 5 should be there."

The younger children should be in a good preschool, not at home, Wohlstetter said, adding that there is also a nationwide push for universal preschool, so that kindergarten will not be a child's first scholastic experience.

California is one of only five states, plus the District of Columbia, that have cutoff dates of Dec. 1 or later, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Many have changed their entrance dates to ensure that most, if not all, children are 5 by the start of the school year.

"There is no perfect date," said Michelle Galvan, a policy analyst for the states commission, "but there could be value in aligning more closely with other states."

Some parents think that policymakers are wrong to focus on chronological age. They want to see kindergarten entrance determined by testing a child's readiness. (State law permits districts to make exceptions to the cutoff date, but some, including Los Angeles Unified, adhere to the cutoff.)

Howard Blasberg's twin boys, who will turn 5 on Sept. 21, can start kindergarten next month at Kester Avenue Elementary in Van Nuys. They would have been excluded under the proposed change.

Blasberg worries about his precocious 3-year-old, whose Dec. 10 birthday will keep her out of a Los Angeles Unified kindergarten until she is almost 6.

"She's almost ready for kindergarten now, so I have a tremendous issue" with waiting, Blasberg said.

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