The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 19, 2014

Does pre-school law hurt kids?

CHARLESTON — Education professionals told the Joint Committee on Finance on Wednesday that good intentions often have unintended consequences.

Melanie Cutright, a principal in Wood County, said a bill passed in 2013 that allowed younger children to attend pre-school may actually hurt children.

The law made the cutoff date for children to begin school Sept. 1. In addition, the law mandated that pre-schoolers attend classes five days a week instead of four.

Cutright said children develop skills at a certain rate, and boys physiologically mature at a slower rate at that age than girls.

The law expects teachers to have their students reading on some level at the end of a year of pre-K, but often, Cutright said, that is not what’s happening.

Instead, she said, boys who can’t read as expected are labeled and placed in special classes, even though if they were allowed to wait until they were physiologically mature enough to read anyway, they wouldn’t have a problem.

She likened the situation to parents who expect their 2-month-old infant to walk and take the child to a series of doctors and rehabilitation clinics, and maybe even medicate them. In a matter of eight-to-17 months, the child will walk anyway, but not because of any intervention.

Cutright said her school enrolled a 2-year-old with special needs, who will be in the same class as a 5-year-old, with 18 other students in-between.

“At least four of these children will have special needs,” she said.

The classroom teacher will have only one aide to assist her during the school day, Cutright said.

“In theory it may sound logical (for younger children to attend school), but we find the ramifications are far-reaching,” Cutright said.

The principal also addressed five-day classes for pre-kindergarten students.

Cutright said the fifth day of the week is used for planning, restocking learning centers and sometimes for one-on-one work with certain students who are behind the curve.

“Pre-K should improve graduation rates and decrease behavioral problems, she said.

Cutright said she feared two things: that including the number of pre-K students would bolster county school board budgets and that the school was being treated as a day-care facility.

Finances are always important, she said, but should not be the major factor in deciding to put younger children in school.

She stressed that pre-K is not day care, and has a completely different mission that includes promoting oral language skills and pre-literacy skills.

Pre-K teacher Shelly Wooldridge told the committee that some children come to school before they are toilet-trained, creating yet another issue for teachers and time away from other students.

Parents of 5-year-olds have some expectation of their children being prepared for kindergarten the next year, she said, but with an age and developmental range so disparate, lesson planning is challenging.

“It’s difficult to make sure instruction is appropriate for a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old,” she said.

To compensate, she said, some lessons are geared toward younger children, which means repeating the lesson for 5-year-olds, and at other times, the lessons for older students are too complex for younger children.

Along with pre-K teacher Annette Strimer, Cutright and Wooldridge asked lawmakers to amend the law, and change the date children are eligible for school enrollment to be June 1, meaning students would be 18 at graduation.

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