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More 5-year-olds are getting 'redshirted'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sarah Rappenhagen with her two daughters, Mimi, left, and Grace. Six-year-old Mimi will go to two years of kindergarten after her parents decided her public school was too heavily focused on reading goals. Sarah Rappenhagen has two little girls. The oldest was quick to pick up on numbers and letters when she turned 5, but the youngest needed a little more time.

And that’s OK, Rappenhagen says.

“If you look at two 5-year-olds, one can be really ready for more seated stuff and the other can be really not ready for that,” she says. “I think the expectation is that all kids are going to come out (of kindergarten) reading. I think it puts a lot of pressure on kids.”

Her Mount Tabor-area family is one of several in Portland who are finding ways for their children to have two years of kindergarten. The practice of academic “redshirting” has been gaining in popularity across the nation in recent years, according to research from Stanford University.

Parent-Child Preschools Organization Vice President Kathy Ems says with Oregon districts moving to full-day kindergarten, she urges parents to consider the organization’s two Portland-area preschools that also have half-day kindergartens. She says most families use it as a substitute for public kindergarten, but some are using the programs as a prelude. Ems says there needs to be options for children who aren’t ready for full-day kindergarten yet.

“I know it’s advantageous for most children, and the data supports that, but every child is an individual,” Ems says.

Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman Crystal Greene says that full-day kindergarten is not mandatory — mandatory school starts at age 6 — and parents can still choose to have a half-day of kindergarten at public schools. Greene says children who have turned 6 by Sept. 1 are enrolled in first grade regardless of attendance in kindergarten, unless the district has made a policy or exception allowing older children.TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sarah Rappenhagen's two daughters, Mimi, right, and Grace play in their Mount Tabor-area backyard. The girls attend a private school after their parents were disappointed in their neighborhood school.

“There is not good research-based evidence to support holding students back for a second year of kindergarten and, in fact, most research indicates that holding students back is actually detrimental to long-term social/emotional development,” Greene writes in an email. “However, some parents may believe this is the best choice for their individual child.”

Too much early academics?

Portland parent Dana Brenner-Kelley says she knows several families who have chosen to pursue two years of kindergarten or three years of preschool. Brenner-Kelley, who works as a management consultant, says she thinks it is a reaction to a heavier emphasis on academics in early childhood education.

“I think it’s definitely something that people are doing more lately because of the changes in academics and Common Core,” Brenner-Kelley asserts. “It is a direct response to what’s happening with the education reform.”

Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman Greene says she doesn’t know if this is happening in other parts of the state, but that places outside of Portland often don’t have access to alternative kindergartens.

“One of the reasons the state pushed for full-day kindergarten statewide was so that all students, regardless of location, could access the benefits of expanded kindergarten learning time,” Greene writes in an email.

But Brenner-Kelley argues that in the bigger picture, parents with means are leaving the system to go to private school because of what they see as an over-emphasis on academics.

“We’re actually creating a system that is much more stratified and separate in the name of equity,” she says. “What (parents) are trying to avoid is the heavy academics and the intensity.”

‘Gentle start’

Many of the families Brenner-Kelley knows who are doing this are from her son’s school, private nonprofit Childswork Learning Center, a large Southeast Portland center with about 275 kids ages 3 to 6.

Childswork parent Jessica Van der Merwe’s reasons for giving her daughter two years of kindergarten are different. She says her daughter was ready for kindergarten as she turned 5 within the month of September, but they decided to do a year at Childswork before going on to Atkinson Elementary School in the Spanish immersion program.

Instead of being one of the youngest kids in class, she is now one of the oldest.

“We could have moved her on to first grade,” Van der Merwe says. “She was ahead of her peers in a lot of ways because she knows how to read and write already.”

But she says her daughter needed to mature a little.

“Just allowing her the extra year to be emotionally prepared, to go along with her intellect, was really important to us,” Van der Merwe says, adding: “You know what? An extra year never hurt anyone.”

Kim Hill, executive director of Childswork, says she sees many families choosing the center for its constructivist, play-based model, giving their kids a “gentle start.”

“Some of them choose our kindergarten knowing that the following year they can either choose to repeat in their public school or go to first grade,” she says. “It basically buys them a year to figure that out.”

Hill says parents can either feel their kids are not ready academically or not ready socially for public school.

But Greene says the state has done its homework on what is beneficial for this age group. She points to research, like that from the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes, that suggests kids who are held back don't learn as much.

“Kindergarten is designed to be developmentally appropriate for 5-year-olds and looks very different from older grades,” she writes. “Students are much less likely to be sitting at desks practicing numbers and letters and much more likely to be engaged in age-appropriate learning play to build these foundational skills.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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