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School district may change kindergarten, pre-k entry dates

Would move cutoff from September 30 to July 30, starting in 2021

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD) is considering a change to the kindergarten entry date to ensure that all students are five years old on the first day of school each year.

The change would mandate that kindergartners must be five before July 1 of the year they are enrolling. The district has begun the conversation around these changes, which include preschool and Early Access entrance age requirements, and had the first reading of potential changes to its policies at its regular school board meeting on February 11. 

The district will accept public comment for the next 30 days. The proposed changes will receive a vote at the March 11 school board meeting.

Gunnison kindergarten and preschool director Jennifer Kennedy gave an overview of the proposed changes, and both she and Crested Butte Community School principal Sally Hensley offered their thoughts on the matter of kindergarten readiness in terms of social-emotional maturity and academic rigor.

Kennedy explained that the current entry date for kindergarten is September 30, meaning that children must be age five by that date to enroll for that academic year. This change will also apply to the preschool program, in order to prevent two year-olds from entering the preschool program, as they currently do on occasion.

The document under consideration, authored by the GWSD Administrative Council and the Early Childhood Council, states, “After much discussion, we propose changing the entry date to July 1, starting with the 2021 academic year. This allows for a transition period to help families plan and prepare for this change. We plan to work closely with community partner programs to have individualized conversations with families affected by this change.”

Research included in the document shows local data and national studies, including:

—“54 percent of Gunnison Elementary School second grade students identified as having significant reading delays under the Colorado READ Act have birthdays between July 1 and September 30.”

—“This year there were four Lake preschoolers who were only two years old when they started school, with five additional preschoolers whose birth dates were between July 1 and September 30.”

—“Academic Standards and the READ Act guidelines expect kindergarteners to be able to read by the end of the year.”

—“New studies have shown that delaying kindergarten provides mental health benefits by dramatically reducing inattention/hyperactivity at age 7.”

—“Older students have ‘an academic edge over their younger peers.’”

—“New research shows that a child’s age at first enrollment in school can make a substantial difference in their subsequent cognitive development from ages 6 through 15, affecting not only their test scores but college outcomes and the likelihood of incarceration for juvenile crimes.”

As the board discussed the need for the change, the recurring theme was to help students be set up better for the future. “One thing that comes into play is the social-emotional,” said board member Courtney Fullmer.

Sometimes that aspect of readiness surfaces in first or second grade, said Kennedy, and even in high school.

Board president LeAnn Mick asked about any kind of process that will be a part of this change to accommodate people’s needs.

Fullmer said she was concerned for the families affected by the loss of childcare. “To find that you have another year of childcare,” she said, can be significant.

“This is a huge impact for many families,” said board member Dale Orth.

Hensley said she feels confident in the changes proposed and says Kennedy has done a lot to work on preschool programming.

“I’m really supportive of this move… and if you’re within 30 days or 15 days of the cutoff date, there is this appeal process to the board. And if you’re beyond that …there are some things we can do to alleviate some of the impact,” said Hensley. One possibility suggested was trying to find funding to bridge the additional year of childcare costs incurred by families.

“The point about the lack of childcare in Gunnison and even in Crested Butte is an issue. And that even if they can afford to pay for it, there are simply not enough slots,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy said that while this will be a significant change for many families, it is a positive one for the students it is targeting for a better outcome in the long run. She said raising awareness of the issue would be an important aspect. “But we are not a childcare, we are a school district—and we have to make these decisions based on … what is best for our students.”

The board then discussed how to accommodate the differences among children who are on the cusp of readiness.

The district already has an Early Access program in place, by which children can apply to gain entrance to school before they are eligible by age. Orth said the Early Access process is onerous. “It is a pretty rigorous, strict process. We could sort of examine that to see if there’s going to be a greater number of students applying,” he suggested.

Exceptions to the age requirement are that younger students “shall be accepted if transferring from a public school kindergarten program or meet early access requirements,” according to the proposal documents.

“Three months is a big jump,” said Orth. “With good reason, but…we aren’t exactly going to make them be eight years old before they start kindergarten.”

Two people spoke up from the audience to discuss their personal experiences as parents in such a situation.

Tina Butterfield said she had just recently heard about the start date changes. “I have three kids who would have been, or will be affected.” Butterfield suggested that “we not just look… to see where these kids are reading, but to look at the larger picture. Look at a readiness program.”

Butterfield said in the case of her daughter, who, she said, had excelled at being the youngest in her class and had “leadership qualities,” had benefited from the current arrangement. She asked that the district “resolve this without a hard start date. Students without issues would go unnoticed. But others might be hurt by it.”

Amanda Birdsong said that as a parent, a former kindergarten teacher, and currently running an at-home-preschool business, “I’m dealing with this issue a lot, and fully support moving that date up.”

Birdsong said the financial hardship of paying for childcare in the valley is the only legitimate reason to hesitate. “It’s a hardship, but it’s also something parents are willing to do once they understand. That PR piece, that outreach… it’s not just a struggle for them, and their teacher. It can become an issue for the whole group. When you have a little person under the table, because they don’t have the rigor to handle the lessons…” she said, it can impose on the whole class.

“While it could be considered a big jump, you need to make a big enough jump to make a difference,” she said.

Birdsong also said, in response to an argument that ‘My child is going to get bored,’ “There is great childcare in the valley, and in a play-based preschool that should never happen.

“Let’s give them that edge,” she said. “My husband teaches in the high school [shop class], too. And it’s better to have a 14-year old running a power saw than a 13- year-old.”

Kennedy said that, if adopted, next year the changes would be somewhat voluntary.

“Whenever you set that date, it’s never going to be perfect,” said GWSD superintendent Leslie Nichols.

Mick said it would be appropriate to look as well at close neighboring districts to determine if they have similar start dates.

Questions and comments can be directed to Leslie Nichols at lnichols@gunnisonschools.net.

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