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Local teachers: Lowering kindergarten age to 4 'good move'

April 29th, 2012 10:04 pm by Rick Wagner

Kindergarten teachers from three local school systems say the General Assembly’s passage of legislation for some children to start kindergarten a year later may be a good move.

But they also indicated that having a mechanism that allows some 4-year-olds to start their academic career on the original deadline is good, too.

The Tennessee House Wednesday and Senate Thursday approved a bill that for 2013-14 would move the eligibility age for kindergarten from turning 5 years old at the end of September to the end of August.

For 2014-15 and thereafter, that would be moved to Aug. 15.

According to articles in the Tennessean, estimates from legislative staffers indicate the measure could save as much as $21 million a year for the state and $11 million for districts. It would also affect the approximately 4,200 students in the state that have birthdays between Aug. 15 and Sept. 30. But local teachers said money is not on their radar when it comes to the issue.

“It needs to be changed,” said Surgoinsville Elementary School kindergarten teacher Amy McFarland, who has taught kindergarten for 23 years. “Some of them aren’t ready, but you have some that are. It just depends how their parents have worked with them.”

McFarland said she has seen huge changes since she attended kindergarten and since she began teaching it.

“When I first attended kindergarten, it was social,” McFarland said of things such as learning to get along with others.

“Today, we’re hopefully teaching them how to read,” she said. “What they do in kindergarten is what I learned in first grade.”

McFarland said incoming kindergarten students in Hawkins County are expected to know their alphabet, colors and numbers up to 10, be able to recognize numbers to 30, and be able to count to 100.

The bill contains two exceptions.

One is if the director of schools finds, through evaluation and testing at the request of the parent or guardian, that a child who turns 5 on or before Sept. 30 is “sufficiently mature emotionally and academically,” then the child may be permitted to enter kindergarten.

The other is that children who participated in a pre-kindergarten program during the 2012-13 or 2013-14 school years may enter kindergarten in the 2013-14 or 2014-15 school years, respectively.

According to an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal online edition Thursday, Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, argued that even though the eligibility window is only being altered by six weeks, parents of children who are affected will face another year of paying for child care, and the child will be behind a year.

“For those who are struggling to make ends meet, it’s another year of child care, and it’s financial,” Herron said.

However, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said the bill was sought by kindergarten teachers in his area because many of the youngest children who enter kindergarten aren’t ready for it.

“It really is an individual child’s thing. There’s no one size serves all,” Debra Valk, a 22-year kindergarten teacher at Kingsport’s Adams Elementary School, said of the younger kindergarten students. “For some kids, they don’t need that (extra time). Others do.”

Valk said in her experience it is not so much academic performance but social behavior.

“Are you able to sit and look and listen and pay attention, work on your tasks and work independently?” Valk asked. “Overall, I have found that the students who do have that extra time to mature are more successful both socially and academically.”

Athena Warren, who teaches kindergarten at Mary Hughes School in the Piney Flats community of Sullivan County, said the consensus she’s heard from fellow kindergarten instructors is moving the September deadline would be good. She has taught for 20 years, 15 of those in kindergarten.

“I as well as my colleagues have said for several years now that the Tennessee kindergarten curriculum is geared toward children that have preschool experience. It would be helpful if the cut-off age date were earlier than September 30th,” said Warren, president of the Sullivan County Education Association. “Kindergarten is the new first grade, so if a child has a couple more months to mature that will only help in the long run.”

The bill can become law with the signature of Gov. Bill Haslam, or it could become law without his signature after a period.

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