Red-shirting Pre-Ks


In my rose garden there's one bush that usually blooms after the other, bigger bushes have lost their blooms. Its flowers are smaller but no less fragrant or beautiful than the others. It just takes a little longer for the little bush to grow before it can produce a colorful show.

One clear, cool summer morning, while pulling a few weeds from the mulch around the bush, I thought that maybe that little rose bush and my youngest son had a lot in common. I was thinking back to late winter, when my husband and I had decided that our 4-year-old was too small and a little too immature to start kindergarten in the fall. Another year of nursery school would do him good, we reasoned. His preschool teacher, who's a beautiful young lady fresh out of college and has no children, agreed with us, pointing out the results of some skills test taken last December.

But as parents of many years know, children have a funny habit of growing up overnight. It seems that, suddenly, the skinny little guy who hadn't gained a pound in 10 months is now six pounds heavier and quite a bit taller than he was earlier this year. Also, he exhibits more advanced thinking skills. For example, now he usually understands that when something is a surprise you don't tell the person the surprise is intended for.

These new developments have us rethinking our decision on kindergarten. However, I'm not too eager to change my mind because he is what educators call (some derisively) a "fall baby," meaning a child who turns 5 in the fall of the year that he starts kindergarten. I didn't have to worry about such things with my older son, a winter baby who was 5 1/2 when he started school. Fall babies are usually smaller and more immature than children who are 5 or 6 upon entering kindergarten.

If you think parents have mixed emotions over this, consider the schools. Over the years, many school systems have changed the qualifying birth month for children to start kindergarten based on what teachers, the latest studies and other factors indicate. Currently, it seems that while some experts are encouraging parents to hold 4-year-olds back another year before starting kindergarten, there are many other experts who reject that idea. A key reason for those in favor of holding children back a year is the school reforms of recent years that have some schools teaching more basic skills in the early grades. For some students, kindergarten is as difficult as first grade was a generation ago.

Another option for parents these days is to have their child, especially fall babies, repeat kindergarten. As one who went to school in the dark ages of the '60s and '70s, when repeating a grade was taboo, I don't like that idea. After all, won't he get bored possibly having the same teacher sing the same songs and read the same stories again?

Recently, the New York Times reported that it's actually trendy to hold a child back at least a year before starting school. It seems that many in the tony Manhattan crowd are even holding back 6-year-olds to give them a better shot at landing coveted spots in exclusive private schools. There is even a term to describe it: red-shirting. It's borrowed from the college practice of withdrawing a player from a varsity college team for one year so the player may retain that season of eligibility to use later in his college career.

The Times article was packed with quotable experts who abhorred the practice of delaying the entrance of 5-year-olds and nearly 5-year-olds into school. Two of the experts cited studies showing that any benefits reaped from delayed school entry usually are gone early in their school career. But there were few details given about the studies. Were they all children in a rural school district or big-city students? It makes a difference. The Times article concluded that this is an issue of affluence; poor people just enroll their children in school as soon as the schools accept them.

The article was one more factor in the wave of indecision that has recently swept over me.

On my son's last day of preschool this year, an assistant teacher at his school, who is a grandmother, inquired about his school plans for the fall. I told her we were still debating, but that he probably would return to preschool. She laughed the way grandmothers do when a younger generation says something that seems absurd to them. Then she said, "If he's ever going to be ready [to start kindergarten], he's ready now."

I just wish I were as certain about my point of view as she and the experts in the Times are of theirs.

N Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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