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A tale of two districts and their kindergarten cut-off dates

Last month, the school board of Mesa County Valley District 51 in Grand Junction voted unanimously to move the kindergarten entrance cut-off date from September 15 to July 15, starting this fall. The move surprised and upset parents whose children have birthdays during that two-month window. Besides reversing course on the “you’re going to kindergarten” conversation, many now face the expense of another year of preschool or child care.

Meanwhile, 285 miles away in the Pueblo City Schools district, the kindergarten entrance date recently moved in the opposite direction — from its long-held June 1 date to October 1. That change, also unanimously approved by the school board, took effect last fall.

Kindergarten entrance dates can be a fraught subject, especially for parents whose children have birthdays just before or just after the cut-off. The changes in Grand Junction and Pueblo illustrate the anxiety entrance date changes provoke and raise questions about the long-term outcomes of such decisions.

The two districts had very different reasons for their respective changes. In Pueblo, there was concern that the district’s entrance date was out of sync with other Colorado districts, most of which have Oct. 1 cut-offs.

In Grand Junction, the worry was that kindergarteners with late summer birthdays struggled more and did worse academically. Lesley Rose, the district’s executive director of academic achievement and student growth, said a gradual increase in kindergarten rigor has contributed to such outcomes.

“Kindergarten doesn’t look like it used to,” she said. “There’s just no comparison.”

But some experts say that while raising the average age of the kindergarten cohort may seem like a pragmatic, data-driven change, it may represent the easy way out.

Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said pushing back entrance dates so that the youngest students are carved out of the cohort can seem like “changing the outcome to make it look like there’s a better system of education going.”

“You’re changing the composition of the kindergarten classroom,” he said. “You’re not changing how you do kindergarten.”

Another concern, he said, is that some kids in the two-month summer birthday window — those who don’t qualify for state or federal preschool programs but whose parents can’t pay for private preschool or provide an enriching home experience — will miss out on an important year of learning. In addition, he said the date change may have unintended consequences for the kids who will now fall on the oldest end of the cohort.

“You’re just moving that window forward,” he said. “If the kindergarten experience is not adequate [now], it’s probably not going to be adequate for the older kids in the room next year.”

Combatting academic woes

Data presented to the District 51 school board showed that kids with birthdays during the July 15 to September 15 window were held back more often. They also did worse on reading assessments in kindergarten through third grade and worse on TCAP reading tests in third, fourth and fifth grade.

One chart presented to the school showed that nearly half of kindergarteners retained last year were kids with birthdays between July 15 and September 15. Rose said that summer birthday students are not to blame for the academic difficulties.

“It’s not because they’re immature. It’s because they’re young. They’re exactly where they should be.”

That said, recent research on kindergarten retention found that the youngest students in a cohort were held back more often than older students with similarly poor academic performance. The same held true for children who were short. In other words, age and height figured into a decision that most people would assume is based on performance.

Researcher Francis Huang, assistant professor in the University of Missouri College of Education, said he hopes the study will make educators more aware of the age bias in retention decisions. He said his findings also highlight the need for teachers to be responsive to the diverse populations in their kindergarten classes.

No matter what the entrance date is, he said, “You’re going to have an oldest child and a youngest child in the classroom….You’re going to have that gap.”

Snow said District 51’s new entrance date may well produce short-lived improvements in test scores and other indicators. Typically, he said, districts experience a one-year blip — either up or down — when they adjust entrance dates, but the results tend to flatten out in subsequent years.

Creeping cut-off dates

Over the last thirty years, there’s been a slow creep toward earlier kindergarten entrance dates nationally. While only about 30 percent of states had cut-offs in September or before in 1975, 82 percent did by 2010, according to a report from the Education Commission of the States. Michigan and California are two states in the process of moving their cut-off dates from early December to September 1.

Currently, most states have cut-offs between August 31 and October 1, with a handful requiring entering kindergarteners to turn five by July 31 or August 1. There are also several states, including Colorado and New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, that allow school districts to set their own kindergarten entrance dates.

In the Pueblo City district, administrators say the June 1 date had been in place for at least a decade. Last year, when the school board asked administrators to research cut-off dates in other medium and large Colorado districts, they learned that 19 of 20 districts, including District 51, were using August 31 or later.

Daryl Gagliano, the district’s executive director of early childhood education, curriculum and instruction said Pueblo’s mismatch with other districts in the state posed a problem for families who moved in or out of the district. In addition, there were a healthy number of families—about 50 to 100 a year—who had their summer birthday children screened for early entrance.

As for concerns about the school readiness among “young fives,” she asked, “Is it that the child isn’t ready or is it that the school isn’t ready?”

Trepidation in Pueblo

It’s not surprising that kindergarten date changes, no matter the direction, are a source of stress for parents and teachers.

In Pueblo, which went from a 1,400-student kindergarten cohort to an 1,800-student cohort this year, “There was a high degree of trepidation,” said Gagliano.

Part of the issue, she said, is that the date change coincided with implementation of other new policies, such as the READ Act, a state law that requires special literacy plans for students in kindergarten through third grade who aren’t reading at grade level. She said there will be focus groups with kindergarten teachers at the end of the year to solicit feedback on the change.

Megan Murillo, a Pueblo mother of three children with summer birthdays, didn’t have to worry about the date change this year because her two oldest children attend a charter school that kept the June 1 cut-off date and her youngest is still at home. But several of her friends decided to send their children to nearby districts because they were worried that District 60 couldn’t handle the sudden influx this year.

Although Murillo said she’s glad the charter school didn’t change its entrance date, she and her husband have considered moving elsewhere in the state, which could change kindergarten timing for her youngest daughter and the age dynamic for her older children. She joked about her envy for children with winter birthdays.

“Couldn’t we have just had one in December?” laughed Murillo. “That would have been so much easier.”

Emotions run high in Grand Junction

In District 51, administrators say some parents and teachers have praised the date change in conversations or on social media. But staff members have also fielded plenty of phone calls from angry or frustrated parents. Rose said some parents have asked if they can get the school board to reverse the decision or if an exception can be made for their child.

“It’s been very emotional and very difficult for parents,” she said.

Part of the consternation may be due to the late-breaking nature of the date adjustment. While administrators had recommended the change take effect for the 2015-16 school year, the school board opted to speed it up by a year. This year only, the district is waiving the $90 fee charged to screen four-year-olds to determine if they are eligible to start kindergarten early.

Overall, the date change will affect around 250 children who will turn five during the two-month summer window. About 75 of those children — those who attend district-run preschools through the Colorado Preschool Program or because of special education status — will be guaranteed a spot in the same programs next year, said Kim Self, the district’s early childhood coordinator.

“They’ll just get an extra year with us,” she said.

It’s unclear what will happen to students who don’t make the new cut-off but aren’t currently in the Colorado Preschool Program, which serves at-risk students. There were about 160 students on the district’s CPP waiting list as of December. Self said if the legislature passes the school finance bill, which would provide additional funding for CPP or full-day kindergarten, she plans to request 60-64 additional CPP spots from the state.

The new entrance date change for kindergarten also applies to CPP preschoolers. Thus, children who will turn four from July 15 to September 15, will be eligible for the “threes” classes and children turning three during that period won’t be eligible at all.

“No matter what you do in this world, there will always be some unintended consequences,” said Rose.

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