BEMIDJI – Each child has his or her own clock, says Jim Hess, superintendent of the Bemidji School District. For some, the clock ticks by quickly; for others, it ticks a little slower.
The decision on whether to enter a child into kindergarten at age 5 or 6 is ultimately left to parents.
“When the child is ready to learn, we’re ready to teach,” Hess said.
By law, Minnesota children are eligible to enter kindergarten if they turn 5 on or before Sept. 1.
But some kids just aren’t ready by that point.
“We suggest that they take a smaller bite, so children can build on success instead of failure,” Hess said.
That’s why, for more than two decades, the Bemidji School District has offered K-1, a pre-kindergarten program for younger students.
K-1, which is funded by the district, is recommended for boys with late spring or summer birthdays, and for girls with summer birthdays.
In K-1, students are not yet in kindergarten, but are put in a classroom setting. It prepares students for the following year, when they enter kindergarten.
“To me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to head off some potential failures in a child’s schooling experience,” Hess said.
A 2008 study by Wilder Research in St. Paul determined the cost to the Minnesota K-12 system due to unprepared children entering kindergarten is about $113 million annually.
Of that total, the study found about $24.4 million was due to special-education and grade-repetition costs that could be attributed to children who entered kindergarten unprepared.
Vicki Wangberg, early childhood family education and school readiness coordinator with Bemidji Community Education, said child development varies by child. Even if a child seems smart enough for kindergarten, he or she may not have yet learned self-regulation, or how to tell your body what you need to do.
“You need that to be successful in kindergarten,” Wangberg said.
Even if a child is reading at a fourth-grade level, he might be jumping on tables or unable to sit still for story time.
“That’s what’s hard,” she said. “Some kids might have the cognitive ability to do the work in kindergarten, but they don’t have the maturity to self-regulate.”
No one in the district will mandate to a parent that his or her child must enter K-1. The district accepts kindergarteners who meet age requirements whether they are ready or not.
But district staff discuss with parents potential options, including K-1.
Early-childhood screening, required by the state for every student entering school, is done monthly through the Bemidji School District. Professionals examine a child’s thinking, language and communication skills; social and emotional development; and vitals, such as height and weight, vision, hearing and immunization status.
Then, in May, Lindsay Potter, the district’s K-1 teacher, holds 30-minute screenings with the students who qualify for K-1. In that time, they do a mini-day’s worth of activities, including circle time and a table activity.
“We can pick out those kiddos that are younger who will benefit from our program,” she said.
Parents, when they are told that the district recommends K-1 for their child, have a mixture of reactions, she said. Some say they had expected at age 5 to have their child enrolled in school every day, instead of still needing to arrange day care for another year.
But, most, she said, want their children in the program, which has developed a strong reputation throughout the years.
The program is similar to kindergarten in that students access specialty education, such as music, art and physical education. It also has a full-time paraprofessional, Kelly Sagerstrom.
“It feels like kindergarten, but it has a more flexible structured schedule,” she said. “Our days are very student-led.”
Potter said she sees children really grow while enrolled in K-1. One child came in very emotional. He struggled with being dropped off and left alone during the day. After Potter and his parents worked out a system specifically for him, he blossomed and was a different student by Christmas time.
“We’re really fortunate to have this program,” Potter said.
Academic redshirting – or holding a 5-year-old back from kindergarten until he or she turns 6 – has benefits.
Wangberg said many parents will opt to hold a child back because they don’t want that student to turn 18 in July and start college the next month.
Hess said academic redshirting is similar to college athletics. An incoming freshman football player will “redshirt” his first year, practicing with the team but not competing until he is older, stronger and more prepared.
“We don’t want to hurry kids,” Hess said, “but to take each child as they are developmentally ready.”
A 2010 study by the Minnesota Department of Education reported 40 percent of all Minnesota kindergartners did not reach the 75 percent achievement level for overall school readiness for physical development, language and literacy, arts, math, and personal and social development.
“Preschool is great preparation for kindergarten,” Wangberg said, noting that the district offers full- and half-day preschool programs based on free and reduced-lunch rates; no one is turned away for an inability to pay.
“There is research that shows preschool really does make a difference,” she said.
But the foundation for kindergarten success begins at home, Wangberg said.
“One of the best things parents can do is have children in a group with other age mates for socialization, have them exposed to lots o literacy activities, science and math that are developmentally appropriate and fun for young kids,” she said.
Have children count the stairs as they climb the staircase, count out the forks needed to set the table, go for a walk and stop, look at and talk about the grasshopper, plant a seed and watch it grow.
“The greatest gift parents can give their children is quality time,” she said. “Parents are a child’s first teacher.”