Last week, the New York State legislature voted to make kindergarten attendance mandatory for New York City 5-year-olds. In another school year that was rife with budget cuts, the almost-unanimous decision by this historically divided legislature to change the rules regarding school attendance for thousands of kids is quite a feat. Now, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has 10 days to decide whether or not to sign the bill into law. If he does, this legislation has the potential to change to lives of 3,000-6,000 NYC youths, many of which are from low income families or have special needs. The History of Kindergarten For most people my age and older the concept of kindergarten was a far cry from what it is for children today. In the 1980s, when I attended kindergarten in Phoenix, AZ, it was the standard to go for half a day and spend majority of that time playing and singing songs. In terms of “academic” elements of my kindergarten experience, I am certain that the ABCs and 123s were covered, but beyond that it’s sketchy. For most states, it was the 1990s that ushered in the change from half to full-day kindergarten, mostly in response to a rising need for full day childcare among two-income and single-parent homes. It wasn’t until the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) of 2001 that the real “need” for full-day kindergarten began. Now, districts insisted that 5-year-old remain in school for a full 6 hours in order to “prepare” for the academic demands of NCLB testing. Buzzwords like “kindergarten readiness” began to overtake preschools so that now, not even 4-year-olds were entirely safe from the barrage of academic requirements thrown their way. Curiously, however, throughout this change in school culture, the age of compulsory schooling largely remained steady at 6-years-old. Within certain areas or districts, such as Syracuse in central New York, the age was lowered to 5, but this has been by no means universal. That is why the move by the state and cities of New York to change the age of compulsory schooling could be signaling a change for us all in the near future. Why a Change Is Needed As I mentioned before, despite a rather historically divided group, politicians in New York almost universally supported the change of mandatory schooling age in New York City. In the Republican-led State Senate, the vote was 59-to-1 in favor of the change. Yet, with the increased demands on our young people many may be wondering why this change is even needed. Kindergarten has become the new 1st grade, aren’t parents already sending their kids to kindergarten? The answer to that question, however, is complicated. As educators, we are all well aware of how the political environment affects our ability to teach. Whether it’s through revised mandatory curricula or budgetary restraints, our classrooms are held captive by the tax-paying public, for better and for worse. In the case of kindergarten, the non-mandatory nature of the grade means that it is immediately put on the chopping block when budget cuts rear their ugly head. In addition, not “requiring” children to attend kindergarten allows schools to enforce quotas in the classroom. In other words, rather than increase kindergarten class sizes, they simply close the doors once the roster is full or bar some children from attending school in the same capacity as others. In the case of one mother profiled by the New York Times, a Manhattan school told her that her 5-year-old with behavioral problems could only attend school for two hours a day. All of this means that, on average, somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 children each year are turned away from or not even enrolled in kindergarten in New York City. By and large, these kids come from foster homes, poorer families, or have special needs that the schools may not be able to accommodate. When these children turn up again the next year, for the compulsory schooling that begins at age 6, they operate at an educational and social deficit that, even with interventions, is hard to recover. Big Changes, Increased Opportunity At the rallying of City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, all major New York City figures, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, came out in support of this legislation and its far-reach affects. This law, Quinn explained to the New York Times, “stops the abuse of cherry-picking some 5-year-olds over other 5-year-olds” and ensures that “the system could turn no child away.” The idea that this was even happening in the first place is bad enough, the hope that it will now end, however, is excellent news as the summertime begins.
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