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WV House passes bill to up kindergarten, pre-K enrollment age


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed 74-26 a bill Tuesday that would change the dates by when West Virginia children would have to enter kindergarten and be offered free kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.

Currently, the school requirements affect children born before Sept. 1 in the relevant year. Under the bill (SB186), that date would be moved to July 1.

In recent years, the three months with the most births come after July 1.

The state Senate approved the bill 31-2 in mid-March. If the Senate now agrees to the House’s amendments, the bill will go to Gov. Jim Justice for his signature or veto.

Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he spoke with about 45 teachers who were concerned children were starting school too early.

“They noticed that summer babies were having trouble, in kindergarten, starting in kindergarten, some of them were getting held back,” Jeffries said.

Under the bill, starting in the 2018-19 school year, free early education programs would have to be offered statewide to all kids who are 4 years old by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of the school year in which their families plan to enroll them. Public school systems’ fiscal years begin July 1, and each fiscal year contains a single school year.

Enrollment in 4-year-old pre-kindergarten would continue to be voluntary.

Beginning in the 2019-20 school year, county public school systems would have to provide kindergarten to all children who were 5 years old by July 1 of the school year in which their families plan to enroll them.

Also as of that school year, all children who are 6 years old by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of a school year must enroll in kindergarten. Home-schooled and private-schooled students could still be exempted from public school attendance.

Sens. John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, voted against SB186 on the Senate floor. Unger worried that the change could widen existing gaps when young children don’t receive schooling.

Monica DellaMea, executive director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning, said the department is neutral on the bill. She said any gaps in early education that it could create would be “very few and far between.”

Unger highlighted U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing July and August are the months with the highest number of live births. This is a national and state trend.

Provisional data from the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System show that in each of the last three years, July, August and September were West Virginia’s top three months for births (although data isn’t yet available for October-December 2016). In 2013, September wasn’t in the top three but August and July were No. 1 and No. 2.

In 2014, September was the high month with 1,833 births, compared to that year’s monthly average of 1,688. In 2015, August was the high month with 1,812, compared to that year’s monthly average of 1,687. In 2016, August, at 1,777 births, had the highest number out of the monthly data reported so far.

West Virginia’s Birth to Three program, according to its website, supports kids under 3 years old who have a developmental delay in one or more areas including learning, social/emotional skills and communication. It also supports children who have risk factors for delays, which can include “family stressors.”

The state also has a free, voluntary prekindergarten program available for 3-year-olds with special needs and all 4-year-olds. The state doesn’t have guaranteed prekindergarten for 3-year-olds without special needs.

“When that child turns 3 years old, that child is no longer eligible for Birth to Three,” Unger said on the Senate floor. “And it’s not until they turn 4 years old that they can go into early childhood education, so we already have a year gap.”

DellaMea said each county school system has an early entry policy that can allow children who don’t meet the age cutoff to possibly still enroll. She said parents can ask their local school system about its policy, which often “involves some sort of testing of the child to see where they’re at developmentally.”

On the House floor Tuesday, Delegate Michael Ferro, D-Marshall, expressed concern about school systems possibly not offering the waivers.

”I guess it comes down to a mater of trust,” House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, replied. “Do you trust your local school board to make those kind of decisions or not?”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, said children develop at different rates, including regarding when they know how to use the bathroom, and said he thinks some teachers are having to both teach and “raise the children as well” at these early stages. He said teachers and parents had been requesting the change.

Unger asked Mann where else these children are going to learn these skills if they’re coming into early education without them, as the state is now attempting to delay their entry.

“Early childhood education is a whole different type of learning environment that teaches these skills for children,” Unger replied. “Where are these children going to go to get those skills if we’re not going to let them come into early childhood education?”

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