By Logan C. Ritchie / lritchie@atljewishtimes.com (Photo by Andre M via Wikimedia Commons)
The Georgia Capitol

While Georgia legislators push an early cutoff for kindergarten eligibility, local education groups and parents remain skeptical.

House Bill 100, passed by the House and under review in the state Senate, proposes to move the birthday cutoff for students entering kindergarten from Sept. 1 to June 30. In Georgia, many schools start the year in the first 10 days of August.

H.B. 100 states that in the 2017-18 school year, children must be 5 years old by Aug. 1 to start kindergarten. In the 2018-19 school year, children entering kindergarten would have to be 5 by July 1.

With graduation rates hovering at 72.5 percent, test scores among the lowest in the nation and overflowing classrooms, Georgia public schools are in need of change. Gov. Nathan Deal named a 33-member commission in January to study reform of the state’s education system and report back by Aug. 1.

Among those who support H.B. 100 are State School Superintendent Richard Woods, who contends that many students start kindergarten far too young. “Some younger students, especially 4-year-olds, are not developmentally ready for kindergarten. Oftentimes their presence in a classroom requires teachers to provide pre-kindergarten services to the disadvantage of the older students who are ready to learn at the kindergarten level and achieve the high academic standards we have in Georgia.”

But kindergarten readiness does not happen overnight.

GEEARS head Mindy Binderman

“There is nothing magical about turning 5. Every child learns differently. The key to success for students is access to high-quality early education,” said the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students’ founding director, Atlanta Jewish community member Mindy Binderman.

The GEEARS board is chaired by Stephanie Blank and includes The Temple’s senior rabbi, Peter Berg.

“This bill could keep children who are ready out of kindergarten for a year, making Georgia among the earliest cutoffs in the nation. Studies have shown that redshirting [holding children back one year before starting kindergarten] can be counterproductive,” Binderman added.

Parents are taking to social media, creating neighborhood coalitions against the bill and fighting legislators with letter-writing campaigns. Without an in-depth explanation of the proposed cutoff dates, many feel H.B. 100 is vague.

In the Mary Lin Elementary School district, which draws from intown neighborhoods Lake Claire, Candler Park and Inman Park, parents are outraged at the proposal.

Comments on NextDoor.com include “There’s no reason that any child who is ready for kindergarten shouldn’t be allowed to go there” and “This will especially hurt the poor who can’t afford preschool, and would then start school later in life. The government should be going in the opposite direction and start offering public Pre-K to give low income children a more equal opportunity to succeed in life.”

This bill proposes no additional pre-K programs. In the city of Atlanta, free Georgia pre-K is offered through a lottery system.

Annsley Klehr of Lake Claire, a 10-year former teacher of elementary school in Atlanta and Philadelphia, formed Don’t Hold Back Georgia Kids with a petition of 80 signatures. A portion of the group plans to visit the state Senate to protest H.B. 100.

“Low-income families who do not have access to quality early education now have to wait until a child is age 6 to send him to kindergarten,” widening the achievement gap, Klehr said. “Children experience the most brain development between ages zero to 5 years.”

A better solution, Klehr said, is to make free or affordable early education or quality child care in Georgia. “Even better would be for kids to be evaluated with preschool or day care educators and parents. That way age won’t play a role as much as developmental readiness.”

“If legislators really want to ensure kids are ready for kindergarten, then this bill does not provide that solution because it doesn’t address needs young learners have,” Binderman said. “GEEARS is happy to work with them to explore other options. There has to be a cutoff for the business end of education, and there must be entry dates. If they [legislators] articulated a reason for that July 1 date for the business of school, if there’s some reason that makes sense and it’s not about kindergarten readiness, we may not oppose the bill. But we haven’t heard another reason articulated.”

The Davis Academy has long addressed kindergarten readiness with a program called Mechina: Kindergarten Prep for children with summer birthdays who are eligible for kindergarten but would benefit from an additional year of academic, social or emotional development first. Mechina is in its 11th year.

“The personalization and individualization of the learning process for each child is a unique strength of the Davis experience at all ages, and setting aside where a particular child’s birth date happens to fall, the school remains committed to ensuring that each child reaches his or her fullest potential,” Davis said in a statement.
The Epstein School also offers a transitional year between pre-K and kindergarten. It features a small-group learning environment, differentiated instruction and a student-centered approach.

For parents who are on the fence about H.B. 100, Binderman said: “Kindergarten is not mandatory in the state of Georgia. Families who have enrolled have made a parent-choice issue as well. Parents need to remember that not one size fits all.”

The Senate is due to review and vote on H.B. 100 in upcoming days.