State school board raises required age for kindergarten

Cutoff date for pupils to turn 5 is moved up

May 22, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

In a change that will eventually affect 18,000 Maryland pupils each year, children will have to be 5 years old to start kindergarten, the state school board decided yesterday, acknowledging that early education has become much more rigorous.

The change requires children entering kindergarten to turn 5 by Sept. 1 of that year, instead of by Dec. 31. The new policy will be phased in, with the cutoff date being moved up one month a year starting in fall 2003.

"Those younger children were having real difficulties," said Toni Ungaretti, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University and co-chairwoman of a state kindergarten task force. "We want to have these children prepared."

They need to be prepared for a kindergarten that is much tougher than before, Ungaretti said. Naps and playtime have given way to serious lessons on letters, numbers, reading and writing.

Teachers say the children with fall birthdays can't keep up and aren't socially or emotionally ready for the challenges.

"Kindergarten is not just play anymore," said Lori Hoffman, a teacher at Jones Elementary School in Severna Park. "They're reading books, they're writing in journals, they're using questioning skills. Those fall babies -- why hurry them along? They're not ready."

The state Board of Education unanimously approved moving up the cutoff date for kindergarten entry. The change aligns Maryland with the practice of most states in the country. Four states and the District of Columbia still have a Dec. 31 cutoff.

By the time the change is fully implemented in Maryland in fall 2006, about 18,000 children will be starting kindergarten a year later than under the previous rules. The Maryland State Teachers Association and parent leaders have been pushing for the change for years. The state board has taken up the issue several times since 1988 but never made a change.

But now, officials point to research on brain development that shows young children can significantly benefit from an early emphasis on reading and language skills -- and improve their performance as they advance through school.

"We think a strong educational program at this young age makes a big difference in the children's future progress," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "There are critical periods."

She said the change doesn't mean that children with fall birthdays will be sitting at home for one more year. About 25 percent of 4-year-olds in Maryland are in a state or federal program.

And the state committed this year to provide money to ensure that all 4-year-olds from poor families are in preschool by 2007. Many children are also in private preschools, officials said.

"What used to be kindergarten experiences are now preschool experiences for many children," said Rolf Grafwallner, chief of the early learning section of the State Department of Education. "You have to be developmentally appropriate, but you can still emphasize basic skills and reinforce them."

Parents who don't want their children with fall birthdays to wait a year before entering kindergarten will be able to appeal to their local school boards for a waiver.

Also yesterday, the state school board heard from members of TakeBackMaryland.org, a group that led a petition drive last year against a law that banned discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Group leaders spoke yesterday against a proposed policy change that would protect gay students from harassment and guarantee them a safe educational environment. The proposal adds sexual orientation to a list of "diversity factors" for which schools must show "tolerance and consideration."

"We don't want gay clubs or gay teachers being hired on purpose or gay pride days to sexualize our children," said Douglas Stiegler of Randallstown.

The state board is scheduled to take up the issue next month.

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