Superintendent Barresi leads opposition to Rep. Johnson’s bill to delay Kindergarten start date

 Rep. Dennis Johnson of Durant, sponsor of last year’s unsuccessful measure (House Bill 1465) to change the cutoff date for taxpayer-financed Kindergarten programs from September 1 to July 1, introduced a House Interim Study on the “age of children entering kindergarten” which was conducted at the state Capitol.

Johnson contended the presence of four-year-olds in Kindergarten classrooms was as a general rule undesirable, due to lack of both maturity and readiness to learn. At one point, he reflected, “two months is nothing when you’re 58 years old, but it means a lot when you are a child.” He argued the switch of two months would allow more children to succeed in school, and improve performance on standardized tests, and in reading skills.

Advocating for Rep. Johnson’s approach during the hearing, well-attended by members of both parties in the state House of Representatives, were a group of educators who are members of Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE), the state’s largest non-union association for teachers.

Leading off was Patti Cox, superintendent of the Aline-Cleo Public Schools. She anticipated points made throughout the day in saying children learn language skills from parents or care givers, and how family dysfunction and socioeconomic challenges can undermine learning. Throughout the early years and until the age of four, children want to play, and the best strategies to prepare children for kindergarten and reading is to prepare for learning within “structured play.”

Cox begged lawmakers to allow more children “one more year to grow and develop” before formal schooling begins. She noted that children in Finland, often considered an educational model, do not begin primary school until the age of 7, after Kindergarten attendance at age 6.

Cox maintained data supports her view that the capacity for learning increases with an extra year outside of formal learning environments. In one of the most provocative comments of the day, Cox said, “In a perfect world, a beautiful world, children would not start school until age 8.”

Another educator speaking in support of Johnson’s idea was Linda Cole, a T1 (transitional first grade) teacher from Sayre. She characterized herself as “a late bloomer” who probably began school too early. Saying she hoped that eventually there would not be a need for T1 instruction — because more children would be better prepared — she asked legislators to support the two month shift.

Kristi Ferguson of Newcastle, a Title I teacher, noted that over time one in five of her students have what, for purposes of this study, are deemed “early birthdays” (i.e. in the summer months). She said, “They are children who need another year to grow.” When she does readiness assessments and concludes a child is not ready for formal learning, Ferguson said, she encourages parents to consider the extra year outside of a school as “a gift of time.”

Ferguson also said she is worried that continued pressure to start children through formal schooling who are not ready for classroom learning will “have a negative effect on teacher evaluation.”

Ginger Tinney, executive director of POE, reported that 97 percent of her organization’s members “feel strongly” about the proposed two-month shift. Concerning the contrary push to advance 4-year old (pre-K) programs for children and keep the cutoff date at September 1, she asked, rhetorically, “What’s the rush?” She also cautioned against what she termed “a very dangerous philosophy” to equate poverty with bad parenting, and wealth with good parenting.

Tinney reflected, “Kindergarten is where the clock starts in schools. Could we not hold children back one more year, then they will be more successful?” In exchanges with members of the committee, Tinney noted supporters of the shift in cutoff dates would be willing to work with opponents to stagger the date shift over a two-year period.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi led a group of government educators opposed to the switch in start dates.

Joining Barresi in presenting views opposed to the two-month shift in the Kindergarten start date were LeAnn Barnwell, superintendent of Kansas (Oklahoma) Public Schools, Ellyn Hefner of the Interagency Coordinating Council for Sooner Start, Janet Mckenzie, a teacher from Skelly primary in the Tulsa public schools, and Dr. Diane Horm, a professor in the college of education at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.

Data presented by Barresi summarized cut-off dates by state. While 41 states use a September 1 cutoff, the date is earlier in a handful of states, and later in a few others. Barresi told members the switch would affect 9,200 “summer babies” – those born between July 1 and September 1.

Oklahoma children born in July and August amount to 17.8 percent of total births, it is estimated. It was noted during discussion at the hearing that the cutoff has been as early as April and as late as November.

Barresi said the argument about preparing for Kindergarten was off the mark, contending, “This is not about preparing for Kindergarten. This is about getting ready to read.” Barresi applauded the state’s long-term involvement in early childhood learning, saying the attendance of 93 percent of the state’s children in full-day Kindergarten is a positive thing.

Barresi and her allies at the hearing pointed to well-known indices of challenges in the Sooner State – 60 percent of all births paid for by Medicaid, 40 percent of births are to unwed mothers, and 61 percent of students are on free and reduced lunches.

Barresi said often that Oklahoma’s early childhood programs are voluntary. Barresi asserted that academic evidence summarized by Dr. Horm would “debunk” the view that holding children back a grade is good for their academic development.

Hefner spoke as mother of a son with a cognitive impairment. She asked members of the panel to take into account “all the children.”

McKenzie said much of what was asserted earlier about differences among children in early grades, by teaching colleagues in favor of the date shift, “is correct.” But she said critics of the current September 1 start are focused on the wrong issue: “If our children are not ready, shouldn’t we make our schools ready? It’s up to us to make all schools ready for children.”

She believes, “We need to focus on how to get them into school, not out.” Mckenzie reflected the view that content standards in today’s Kindergartens are more like those in first grades of earlier decades.

Mckenzie pointed to violence, drug abuse, physical abuse, imprisoned parents and other challenges facing children in early school years as indicating they need to be in schools, rather than in homes, day care or private settings.

Dr. Horm asserted that questions about start-dates are settled in academic circles, with studies from the 1980s and 1990s supporting her conclusion that policymakers should settle on a cutoff date, stick to it, and support teachers in serving all students who enter their classrooms.

In a summary of research articles related to Kindergarten entry age, Dr. Horm wrote, “Policies such as raising the entrance age, readiness screening, and kindergarten retention are intended to solve the problem of inappropriate academic demand by removing younger or unready children. Research evidence does not support the efficacy of these policies.”

Frequently in the day’s presentations, advocates for the two sides referenced the socioeconomic data about challenges of poverty, family structure and cognitive development to reach strikingly different conclusions about what would be the best time for children to begin Kindergarten and, before that, to enter pre-K programs.