4-year-old kindergartners strain state
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 1, 2005
Karina Bland

Four-year-olds still are attending kindergarten at taxpayer expense, five years after the state said it would not pay for them to go to public school.

The little learners wouldn't be so controversial if they all were kindergarten material. But they are being held back for a second year in kindergarten at rates as high as 62 percent in Mesa and in Tempe at five times the rate for 5-year-olds.

This year in just three school districts, the children's extra year of school cost taxpayers $2.5 million.

In 2000, after learning that districts were offering early-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds on the state's tab, then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano, who is now governor, issued an opinion, saying that the programs, although worthwhile, were not the state's financial responsibility.

State law provides funding for a child to attend kindergarten through 12th grade and forbids the use of state money for preschool programs except for disabled children. Left unchecked, the early-kindergarten programs could have cost the state $36 million annually.

So schools eliminated early-kindergarten programs but scrambled to find other ways to keep their youngest students in school along with the state funding.

Three Valley school districts, Mesa, Chandler and Tempe, altered admission policies to allow some 4-year-olds into regular kindergarten. This year, 1,067 children in Mesa, Chandler and Tempe who started kindergarten at 4 had to repeat kindergarten.

Scottsdale plans to join the fray this fall, letting some 4-year-olds attend kindergarten.

The practice has proved popular with parents. Marta Hatch of Tempe put her daughter, Brenna, who was 5 in December, in half-day kindergarten at Broadmor Elementary School, suspecting that she likely would be retained.

"She does just great socially. Academically, she is behind the other children," said Hatch, a mother of five.

Next year, Hatch will enroll Brenna in all-day kindergarten "just to give her that little extra time to get better." Starting school early means not having to pay for preschool, though the Hatches support the school through their taxes. "It's very nice that it's available," she said.

High retention rates

But retention rates for the students entering kindergarten as 4-year-olds are alarmingly high.

In Mesa, 904 of 1,449 4-year-old kindergartners, or 62 percent, did not go on to first grade in the 2003-04 school year, compared with only 4 percent of 5-year-old kindergartners.

Thirty percent, or 93 of 310, of the young kindergartners were retained in Chandler, compared with about 2 percent of regular kindergartners. Tempe had the lowest rate of retention for its 4-year-old kindergartners, with almost 16 percent not sent on to first grade, compared with almost 3 percent of 5-year-olds retained.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne says no school should admit 4-year-olds with the intention of keeping them in kindergarten for two years. But Susan Segal of the Arizona Attorney General's Office said it's "School districts have a wide degree of discretion to determine what's in the best interest of the child," she said.

Arizona law allows students who turn 5 by Dec. 31 into kindergarten if it is in the child's "best interest"; historically, most school districts required that they turn 5 by Sept. 1.

But that was before the proliferation of charter schools, which routinely let 4-year-olds enroll in kindergarten. In response, some districts offered early-kindergarten programs. When the state pulled its funding, districts had to try something else.

Whether 4-year-olds should be in kindergarten divides the education community, with a range of opinions among teachers, principals, administrators and school boards.

Charter competition

Educators insist the decision is not based on enrollment figures. But early admission is more likely in the East Valley because of the fierce competition with charter schools for students there. In areas where there are fewer charter schools, children are more likely to be told to wait another year.

The Paradise Valley Unified School District, for example, makes no exceptions: Children must be 5 by Aug. 31 to enroll in kindergarten. In the Washington Elementary School District, children can start early only if they pass an assessment and interview.

"Kindergarten today is more like what first grade used to be," said Nedda Shafir, a former kindergarten teacher and spokeswomen for the Washington district. "It used to be where kids came and got used to being in a classroom. Now, there are very stringent academic standards that children must master."

The Kyrene Elementary School District, which had to fold its popular early-kindergarten program, too, ensures that the 4-year-olds it lets into kindergarten succeed through assessments. School officials meet with parents and give them the option of transferring their child out of kindergarten into a district preschool program if it doesn't work out in the first 90 days. But the parents must pay for the preschool program whereas the state picks up the tab for a child enrolled in kindergarten.

"We make sure they are comfortably ready. If they're not ready or borderline, they're not allowed to enroll early," Kyrene spokesman Johnny Cruz said. "The intent is that the children who do enter kindergarten are as prepared as possible. If in doubt, it's better that they wait than be in a classroom that they're not ready for."

In Mesa, Tempe and Chandler, it's parents who decide whether their kids start early.

"The parents believe their kids are ready," said Terry Locke, spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District, where the youngest kindergartners are put together in a smaller classroom.

Mesa, too, keeps their younger kindergartners in their own classroom. The pace is a little slower.

"What we find is that the youngest children need more time," said Marilyn Box, early-childhood specialist for Mesa Public Schools. "Developmentally, they are less mature when they start, and they have farther to go."


Thus the high retention rates. Box said, "We want kids going on to first grade who are fully prepared to be successful. If at the end of kindergarten, no matter their starting age, if they need more time, we want to give them the time they need."

But if they need more time, said Joanne Meehan, principal of McDowell Mountain School in Fountain Hills, "they're not ready."

"I believe in not putting kids in a situation in which they can't succeed," she said.

Retention, no matter a child's age, carries a stigma, she said. In Fountain Hills, parents can apply for early admission and pay a $35 assessment fee.
Exceptions are rare.

Teachers often balk at having 4-year-olds in class because of the developmental differences between those children and other students, some of whom are 6. Teachers must change the way they teach to cover a wide range of abilities and interests.

Andrea Colby, early-childhood education coordinator in the Tempe Elementary School District, said research shows that although younger students may struggle in the early years, they all catch up by third grade.

Age is not the primary reason children are retained, Colby said. More common indicators are income level and lack of English-language skills.

Edward Zigler, professor of psychology at Yale University, advised Tempe officials to let 4-year-olds in, saying it's helpful for low-income children who may not have had a chance to attend a quality preschool. Those children also benefit from the nutrition provided by school meals.

Today's children are more sophisticated and often start school with years of preschool experience, said Tom Herrmann, spokesman for Scottsdale schools. They are better prepared for the rigors of kindergarten, he said, even if they are still only 4.

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