2016-05-12 / Around Town

The Push for Mandatory Kindergarten

By Olga Enger

Although some may be surprised to learn that Rhode Island parents are not legally required to send their kids to kindergarten, educators say the law on the subject is outdated.

“The standards in kindergarten have changed over the years and attendance is essential for the students to be successful,” said Newport kindergarten teacher Dale Blaess. “It is extremely hard to tell parents that message without state enforcement on the issue.”

Common Core standards, which Rhode Island adopted in 2010, include kindergarten expectations such as reading-emergent texts, shared research and writing projects, use of digital tools to publish writing, and exposure to simple math equations.

“I cannot imagine students headed to first grade without kindergarten. They would end up placed in intervention right away,” said Blaess.

Smith Hill lawmakers have proposed legislation this session to bring the law up-to-date with modern education standards.

State Sen. Roger Picard, D-Woonsocket, who also works as a truancy officer in the Woonsocket School District, proposed that attendance policies for those enrolled in kindergarten match other grades. The bill, S-2022, passed the Senate on May 3 and now heads to the House.

“A small percentage of parents enroll their children in kindergarten and use it as a babysitter. They miss 30, 40 days,” said Picard. He added if students do not attend school regularly once enrolled, it complicates teacher staffing and classroom planning. Although violators may face fines and/or imprisonment, punitive measures for chronic absenteeism are used as a last resort, Picard explained.

“Illnesses come up, family problems come up,” said the senator.

Although S-2022 stops short of requiring kindergarten enrollment, state Rep. William O’Brien, D-North Providence, introduced H-7845, which would lower the minimum age for compulsory school attendance from six to five years of age. If passed, it would also encompass the attendance requirements in Picard’s bill.

“You happen to have two bills submitted by different legislators in different chambers with different wording that accomplish the same thing,” said Daniel Trafford with the Legislative Press and Public Information Bureau.

O’Brien’s bill was heard by the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare on March 3 and was held for further study.

“Kindergarten attendance is critical to not only prepare students academically, but also socially,” said Blaess.

“I don’t know how many parents were aware that kindergarten was not mandatory,” said Newport School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines. “But we treat it as mandatory in Newport. We want kids in those classrooms the 180 school days.”

The nonprofit children’s policy organization Kids Count says that kindergarten no longer serves as the entry point to formal, full-day school for most children, since an estimated 75 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in a preschool program.

The academic expectations and the number of full-day kindergarten programs have steadily increased over the past 30 years. In 1979, 25 percent of kindergartners were in full-day programs, compared to 88 percent of Rhode Island public school kindergarteners this year, according to Kids Count.

State legislation enacted in 2015 requires all Rhode Island districts to implement full-day kindergarten by August 2016. Four districts do not currently offer a full-day program: Coventry, Cranston, East Greenwich, and Warwick.

Leading the trend, Newport has had full-day kindergarten for around 20 years.

Full-day programs tend to be more academic.

Almost 70 percent of full-day kindergarten classes spend more than one hour per day on reading instruction, compared to 37 percent of half-day classes, according to Kids Count. Full-day kindergarten classes also dedicate more time to math, social studies, and science.

“Parents don’t realize that kindergarten is not mandatory in Rhode Island, but it’s where kids develop good habits,” said School Committee member Rebecca Bolan at a February meeting between the committee and the local legislative delegation.

Over the years, Newport school officials have worked to tackle the known problem of chronic absenteeism. Those officials say that starting in kindergarten, children who are chronically absent are more likely to have lower reading scores.

During the 2013-14 school year, 22 percent of Rhode Island middle school students and 30 percent of high school students were chronically absent, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). The U.S. Department of Education and RIDE define “chronically absent” as 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year.

Nearly one-third, or 30 percent, of Rhode Island’s low-income middle and high school students were chronically absent in 2013-2014, compared with 11 percent of higher income students. Middle and high school students receiving special education services were more likely (30 percent) than their peers not receiving these services (18 percent) to be chronically absent.

Last school year, 32 percent of Newport’s high school students, 11 percent of middle school students, and 13 percent of elementary school students were chronically absent.

“We are working with community partners in an effort to increase the awareness that school is important,” said Gaines.

In a 2014 letter sent to local businesses, Newport’s truancy officer Eddie Merritt asked the community to notify him when students were spotted off campus.

“It’s our hope that we can enlist the help of community members to please contact us, should you notice a child of school-age hanging around or visiting your establishment during school hours,” he wrote.

Gaines stressed that school attendance often represents a “culture change” that is passed down through generations.

“We need to start in kindergarten. That’s when kids get in the habit of going to school. Otherwise we end up in catch-up situations and some kids never catch up.”

The next kindergarten registration is scheduled for Friday, June 10. Registration forms are available online at npsri.net/registration or at any Newport public school.

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