Edina Stoller always thought her daughter, Eva, would head off to kindergarten this fall along with her friends. With her fifth birthday coming in November, she might be a little younger and smaller than her classmates, but she'd do just fine.
When Stoller, of Pikesville, learned that the state was moving back its cutoff date -- requiring kindergartners to turn 5 by Oct. 31 instead of the end of the year -- she initially looked for ways around the rule. "I was adamant that they better not tell me she is going to have to stay behind," Stoller said.
But after a lot of soul-searching -- considering everything from her daughter's petite frame to whether she'd be the last in her class to drive -- Stoller enrolled Eva in a private pre-kindergarten program instead.
Just a few blocks away, Stoller's neighbor and friend, Jana Kaplan, is taking a different tack. Her daughter, Leora Fastow, won't be 5 until December. But she seemed on par with her older classmates, if not ahead of them. Kaplan asked to have the school system test her, and Leora's high scores led her to be admitted to kindergarten at Summit Park Elementary School for the fall.
"I don't think she's brilliant, but I just think she is really ready," said Kaplan. "Leora looks older than she is, very tall. I literally have to remind myself she is 4 years old."
Call it the kindergarten conundrum.
As children start formal school with kindergarten this fall, more of their friends with late birthdays will be staying behind. Maryland has been moving its cutoff age back to prepare for universal all-day kindergarten. To enter in 2005, kindergartners must be 5 by Sept. 30; in 2006, by Sept. 1.
Better to be older
For parents of children born late in the year, the decision about when to start kindergarten always has been fraught with questions. Some families have held their children back, wanting them to go through school as the oldest rather than the youngest among peers.
But now the kindergarten question is even more complicated. States are moving back cutoff ages and emphasizing standardized tests. Kindergarten has become more like serious school. Yet some districts, such as Baltimore County, still can make exceptions for children like Leora Fastow.
"I think with the demands on young children in the public schools, it's far better for children to be older," said Sandra Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children and a member of the Maryland Kindergarten Committee, which three years ago recommended the age changes and phase-in to all-day kindergarten.
Skolnik said she was convinced by the testimony of longtime kindergarten teachers, who said that the material they now cover in kindergarten used to be put off until first grade.
Maryland is a relative latecomer to the movement to make kindergartners older. Indiana cuts off entrance for birthdays after July 1; in Missouri, Aug. 1; in Alaska, Aug. 15. Maryland is one of only eight states to require school attendance by age 5. Kindergarten is mandatory.
To help lower-income families get children ready for school, some public schools are offering pre-kindergarten classes. About 21,000 children attended such programs during the last school year. All public schools are to have pre-kindergarten programs by 2007.
That still leaves out people like Karyn and Matt Ash, who aren't eligible to send son Nicholas to their local public pre-kindergarten program this fall. But the Ashes knew that Nicholas, who turns 5 in December, would be bored without school. So he'll attend a program for 4-year-olds at Wards Chapel Preschool in Randallstown, even though the private tuition puts a bit of a strain on the one- income family.
Karyn Ash has had to figure out how to explain the delay to Nicholas, who can add and follow directions and is starting to read.
"He wants to know when he can go to school with all the big kids," she said. "I just tell him it's not time yet."
In some cases, the changing kindergarten age will separate children who have attended preschool together for years. Penny Lopez of Columbia is grateful that one of her daughter Gabi's friends also will be in the pre-kindergarten program at Mount Zion Christian Preschool. Most of Gabi's friends will be moving on to kindergarten.
"As she talks about school, I sort of steer the conversation around to going with her little friend," Lopez said.
Private vs. public
Complicating the picture further are the different practices at private schools. Those schools must comply with the Sept. 1 state cutoff by the 2006-2007 school year, but are not required to roll back one month at a time in the meantime.
At Krieger-Schechter Day School in Pikesville, the evaluation of potential kindergartners starts a year ahead of entrance. While the formal cutoff for the school's kindergarten remains Dec. 31, evaluators test a child and observe him several times at preschool to make a complete recommendation to parents, said director of admissions Ilene Wise.