Pre-first: a grade between Education: Experts disagree about the benefits of delaying first grade for some children.

September 14, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Pre-first: watered-down first grade or souped-up kindergarten?

A gift of time or a theft of opportunity?

A gentle boost for students not quite ready for school or an elitist strategy by parents trying to ensure that their children are at the top of their class?

Wedged between kindergarten and first grade, pre-first can be all of the above, depending on one's perspective.

In the Baltimore area, pre-first was a private-school creation, adopted by some schools more than 20 years ago to address the needs of youngsters with birthdays late in the year or with developmental clocks running slightly behind their chronological age.

More recently, the idea of delaying the start of school for some youngsters has gained currency among public school parents, some of whom postpone the start of kindergarten by a year or send their children to kindergarten for two years.

"It's a long-term investment. It's an amazing year of growth," said Peggy Moag, a pre-first grade teacher at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, where about 30 children fill two sections of the in-between grade this year.

Not so, say critics.

"The extra year is not buying them an advantage. Research shows these extra-year programs are not effective," said Beth Graue, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who has studied school readiness and considers pre-first "a theft of opportunity."

Pre-first is part of a larger trend to delay children's entry into school to ensure early success and prevent repeating a grade.

Last year, 207 youngsters were registered in pre-first in independent schools across the state, according to the Association of Independent Maryland Schools, which represents about 100 private schools. That amounts to almost 10 percent of the more than 2,100 youngsters in first grade in those same schools.

Although public schools do not have official pre-first options, parents achieve the same result by exercising what the state calls a "level of maturity" waiver.

That allows parents to ask the state to let them delay kindergarten, which became mandatory in Maryland in 1992.

About 1,000 parents across the state have exercised that waiver each year since the 1992-1993 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

Some parents send their children to nonpublic kindergarten and then have them repeat kindergarten in public schools, thereby delaying the start of first grade.

"It's better to be over-ready for first grade than under-ready," said Roger Saunders, a child psychologist in Baltimore. "The demand for perfectionism is highest when a child first goes to school," he said, adding that even a minor failure then can be devastating.

One of the advantages of pre-first, even its critics say, is that it offers a specific curriculum and pace geared to the youngsters' development.

At McDonogh, Moag uses a different method of teaching phonics than that used in first grade. She does a lot of hands-on activities closely tied to academics. When the youngsters are learning the "p" sound, they will be cooking peanut butter pancakes.

Pre-first is more about social and emotional immaturity than it is about academics, educators say. Though some schools test students for readiness, a child's ability to read or do math is not what sets pre-first-graders apart.

Nor do their birthdays, though that seems to be the original reason for pre-first -- to address the needs of youngsters with birthdays late in the year.

"Sometimes it's a student who is physically not ready or who is smart but shy or just not ready for the rigors of first grade," said Jean Brune, head of Roland Park Country School, which has one section of pre-first and two sections of first grade this year.

"Development of the child as a whole person is the goal of a pre-first year, hence the emphasis on the child's social and emotional well-being," according to a written introduction to pre-first by Moag and fellow pre-first teacher, Donna Ward.

"When a child feels pushed or pressured, all the avenues for learning may be cut off."

But starting a child late in school can have its drawbacks, critics say. "Kids know they have been left behind and internalize that they are a failure," said Graue.

And as children move into middle school, those who are as much as a year older than their classmates may be embarrassed by their size and physical development. Some researchers have found a tendency toward increased risky behavior among those who are old for their grade.

Anecdotal evidence locally reveals none of these drawbacks.

"For my son, socially, academically and eventually athletically, it's an advantage," said Cheri Poklemba, whose son, Christopher "Cap" Poklemba, is a senior at McDonogh, where he started as a pre-first-grader 12 years ago.

"He's so much more mature. He's just enjoying his senior year."

The Poklembas' three children all attended pre-first. Their daughter, Alexa, started in first, but moved back to pre-first after a month because "she wasn't enjoying school, she was stressed," her mother said.

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