As millions of kids skip kindergarten, the learning gap widens — and schools may lose funding – USA TODAY

Alia Wong
 
| USA TODAY

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Last school year was hard enough. Denise Ladson Johnson’s son Moses struggled with the abrupt transition to distance learning in the spring, with having to say goodbye to his teacher and classmates and not knowing when he’d see them again. It didn’t help that Moses was only in prekindergarten at the time. 

The instability was a big reason Ladson Johnson, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, decided to homeschool Moses this year rather than enrolling him in his district’s kindergarten program. There were too many “uncertainties,” Ladson Johnson said. How could Moses, who’s now 6, learn lessons and social skills remotely?

She didn’t want him to spend his days in front of a computer. She wanted him to enjoy being a kindergartner.

Ladson Johnson is among the potentially hundreds of thousands of parents who decided not to enroll their kindergarten-aged children in traditional schools this academic year. 

Although national statistics aren’t available, one NPR survey last fall of more than 60 districts in 20 states found that enrollment dips have been especially pronounced in kindergarten – on average, these districts have 16% fewer kindergartners than they did during the 2019-2020 school year. A separate analysis of 33 states by Chalkbeat and the Associated Press found that kindergarten opt-outs have been the biggest driver of the overall K-12 enrollment decline, accounting for 30% of the total reductions.

In some school systems, from the Columbus, Ohio-area Groveport Madison district to the Nashville, Tennessee, district, the kindergarten populations have dwindled by roughly 40 percent, reports suggest. 

A slew of private schools have cropped up to meet the demand, and many daycares have developed ad hoc programs tailored to would-be kindergartners. Meanwhile, most of the pandemic-era learning pods nationally appear to target or be available exclusively to younger students, according to a recent analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education of 330 such pods, in which small groups of students learn together in a home or another non-school setting. 

Jody Britten, an Indianapolis-area-based educator and researcher who oversees the national Early Learning Alliance Network, said at least 16 new private kindergarten programs emerged in her region between July and September of last year. Some of the preschool providers she surveyed said would-be kindergartners account for a significant majority of their enrollment this school year.  

The recent tendency toward kindergarten alternatives makes a lot of sense – Zoom school has been challenging for many students of all ages, and a growing body of research indicates that’s especially true for young children.

Plus, federal data from 2018 shows most states don’t require kindergarten attendance. 

But the decision to opt out of kindergarten right now could have implications that extend well beyond the current school year, educators argue, particularly if elementary schools fail to adjust their expectations of what kindergarten and first grade should entail once the pandemic recedes. 

A different form of redshirting

In a typical year, roughly 5 percent of would-be kindergartners are redshirted, meaning their entrance into school is delayed. Historically, these children have tended to be white, male and relatively affluent. Starting kindergarten at an older age than their peers, the thinking goes, could give them a competitive edge academically in the long run.

In his 2008 book Outliers, the author Malcolm Gladwell famously promoted academic redshirting, citing a study showing that kindergarten age-cutoff dates predict a child’s chances at college enrollment.

That redshirting has traditionally been seen as a way of gaming the system is in part why some parents did, despite the limitations and instability of distance learning, decide to enroll their kindergartners in public school this year. “It wouldn’t be fair because so many people don’t have that option” of pulling their children out of the school system,” said Joshua Pierce, whose kids, ages 4 and 7, attend a bilingual public school in Boston. 

“It’s critical more now than ever to support public schools, to work with them to ensure your kids are attending as much as possible,” Pierce continued, noting that “enrollment is a huge driver” of schools’ funding. 

More: COVID-19 means more preschool-age kids won’t be ready for kindergarten

But as experts suggest, this year isn’t an unprecedented tsunami of parents wanting to give their children an advantage over others. It’s a pandemic-driven tsunami of frustration and concern about the quality of Zoom kindergarten and their children’s need for friends and individual attention.

Britten herself is the parent of a kindergartner who’s spending this school year in an alternative, private program “She was so excited to go to kindergarten, so excited,” Britten said. But because Britten’s son has health complications, enrolling her daughter in a normal kindergarten program seemed too great a risk. 

“She’s a kiddo that needs to be around others,” Britten said. The private alternative – which has lots of “flexible space” and emphasizes outdoor activities – was the perfect solution. 

The tendency away from public-school kindergarten is also “about health and safety and race in America,” said Nonie Lesaux , an academic dean and professor who co-directs Harvard’s Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. It’s about parents, many of them people of color whose communities have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, wanting to protect their little ones. 

Long-term implications

Still, the recent trend could similarly exacerbate the achievement gap. Next year’s kindergarten and first-grade classes will likely come with significantly varied levels of readiness. 

Many kindergarten-aged children who’ve been participating in an alternative program this year but plan to repeat kindergarten might start school more advanced – or, at least, mature – than their peers who haven’t yet had any exposure to structured learning. Many first graders, on the other hand, may start the school year without being developmentally ready for it, perhaps because their kindergarten experience was limited to distance learning or because they participated in alternative programs that placed less emphasis on academics. 

For the children who’ve continued with public school kindergarten, experts say their performance depends largely on their home environment. In interviews, kindergarten teachers said students who haven’t had a stay-at-home, non-working parent to help them with their schooling have struggled the most. 

Limited access to internet and devices compounds the disparities: A recent study found that nearly 3 in 5 students participated in online learning this fall, and that 10% of them lacked adequate access to internet and a device. Notably, 36% of children of Black parents with less than a high-school education lacked such technology. 

The digital divide: A year into the pandemic, thousands of students still can’t get reliable WiFi for school. The digital divide remains worse than ever.

Beyond that, the drop in enrollment could cause a huge shake-up at public schools next year, in part because the kindergarten population will be larger than average and the first-grade one, smaller. The phenomenon is bound to create staffing complications and, potentially, an overhaul of what each grade level entails. 

Then there’s the question of funding at a time when districts are struggling to pay for extra expenditures related to PPE, sanitization, and technology. (States typically fund public schools based on the number of students they enrolled the previous school year.) 

Absent a dedicated effort by school districts to accommodate all the prospective changes, Britten and others worry that young children, their teachers, and parents will be left to pick up the pieces. 

For one, schools tend to “back map” to kindergarten, Britten said. For example, the widely accepted rule that students should be able to read longer books independently by the third grade often determines reading standards in kindergarten. “Our [school] systems are moving forward with the status quo,” Britten said, “but we’re not heading into five years of status quo.” 

Teachers may be forced to hold kindergartners and first-graders to standards that are, thanks to the pandemic’s upheaval, no longer developmentally appropriate. Many more students could be identified as having deficits, and as Britten argued that’s bound to have long-term mental-health implications for both children and their parents. 

“We’re going to have, next year, 5- and 6-year-olds bearing the weight of a pandemic, and its impact on education” Britten said. “We can’t just sit them in front of an intervention and they’re gonna magically make up for a year. That’s not how it works.”

How teachers are responding

Kindergarten teachers say they’re prepared to approach next year’s students with that in mind. In the past decade or so, kindergarten has become less about teaching the “ABCs and 123s,” says Ashley Ross Lansdell, a veteran kindergarten teacher in the Indianapolis area, and more about reading and other academic skills – strengths that depend on a child’s ability to communicate and follow rules, to keep to a routine.

“There’s definitely a possibility that next year we’re going to see a gap – that they’ll come in at all different levels,” she said. But that’s true every year – some kids come in reading and others come in not knowing their letters. “You juggle no matter what and differentiate your teaching to meet the needs of all your students.”

Petrina Miller, a longtime kindergarten teacher in South-Central Los Angeles, worries about the lack of interactions that kindergartners need to promote their social-emotional development, much of which happens through play. “We can’t go out and do play-tag and all the fun things we just do do,” she said. 

So her focus next school year, despite the ongoing emphasis on academic rigor in kindergarten, is to “go back to what [kindergarten] used to be … building that community and sense of safety, that basic social and emotional stuff that has to built in first before we focus on academics.”

Regardless, next year will be different. And one reason is that the uptick in redshirting may continue. Some of the private kindergartens that Britten has spoken with say they’re already filled 75% of their seats for this upcoming fall.

Ladson Johnson, the mother in South Carolina, said she’s ready to homeschool Moses again if the instability continues. This year, Moses has thrived in homeschooling, she said; they spend their days going through curricula she found online, devoting the rest of their days bike-riding and going to the farmer’s market and getting creative with arts and crafts. He spends time with his cousins, too – a form of interaction with peers he maybe wouldn’t have gotten if he’d stuck with distance learning.

Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.

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