At just 4 years old, Penelope McClough knows the alphabet, all seven continents, spells phonetically, and reads. Despite all of that, she still had to prove to Bowling Green school district officials that she could handle kindergarten.
"She met with teachers and went through a series of assessments," said Penelope's mother, Anita McClough. "She also met with someone from the school's gifted learners program for more than two hours for academic and social assessments. They wanted to make sure she was ready."
Born in late October, Penelope missed the district's kindergarten age requirement by just 25 days. The district requires that incoming kindergartners be 5 years old by Sept. 30. Penelope turns 5 on Oct. 25.
Certain that their children are kindergarten ready, some parents of children held back by school districts' birthday cut-off deadlines are challenging the system. Looking for an exception to the rule, parents, eager to get their children into school, are requesting that schools test their young children to see if they meet kindergarten requirements.
"She's always been very advanced as far as communication and maturity," Mrs. McClough said of her daughter. "We felt that she was ready, and her preschool teacher said she was ready. It seemed like a waste of time for her to wait another year."
Each year, about 50 to 60 parents challenge Toledo Public Schools' Sept. 30 deadline, hoping to give their children a head start on learning, said Jim Gault, chief academic officer for TPS.
"Parents believe their kids are ready, and in some cases, they're right," Mr. Gault said.
But in most cases, they're not. Less than 10 percent of students tested for early entry pass the assessment, Mr. Gault said. During his three years as an elementary school principal, Mr. Gault remembers just one student enrolling for early entry.
In Perrysburg, where students have to be 5 by Aug. 1 to be eligible for kindergarten, fewer parents are challenging the system and even fewer children are passing the assessment.
"If your child was born Aug. 2, they don't meet our deadline," said Sheila Horseman, executive assistant of pupil services for Perrysburg schools. "But if a parent feels their child should be with that group of students born before Aug. 2, then their child is held to a higher standard in having to meet all the criteria points of the assessment."
For the 2012-2013 school year, six students were tested, but only one met all the criteria points.
"Typically, we don't see a student meet all those points," Ms. Horsemen said. "It's very rare."
Assessments vary by district. In TPS, students seeking early entry are quizzed first by the school principal. Students who score high enough are referred to the school psychologist for a more in-depth evaluation.
Other districts use the Iowa Grade Acceleration guidelines, recommended by the Ohio Department of Education. The screening consists of three testing areas: cognitive, social, and emotional development.
The state mandates that school districts offer an early-entry option, but district leaders discourage parents from sending their children to school before their time.
"I would prefer to see a child be advanced after waiting a year, than be enrolled and be in the middle of the class or sub-par," Mr. Gault said. "The last thing we want to see is a child enrolled early and struggle."
The year-long waiting period allows for growth academically, as well as mentally and socially. The growth is crucial for young learners who may face struggles later on, officials say.
"It's actually to their advantage to keep their child home instead of sending them on. Children grow leaps and bounds in that year," Ms. Horsemen said. "Studies show that many [early-entry] students end up struggling, not necessarily in elementary, but in high school and it's not always the cognitive side," she added.
"Socially, while their classmates may be getting their drivers' license, [early-entry] students aren't old enough. There's a lot more to it than just the academics. Socially and emotionally, are they ready?"
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