Advocate on CASD policy proposal: Kindergarteners don't need to start any earlier

Canton School Board member Ryan Allen talks about a proposed change to the kindergarten cutoff during Thursday’s special board meeting.

CANTON — The Canton Area School Board will be voting on a policy change next month that could allow 4-year-olds to start kindergarten if their birthdays are in September and they prove they are ready through testing.

The current cut off for a kindergartener’s fifth birthday is Sept. 1.

If the change in policy is approved following a second reading next month, Superintendent Eric Briggs said parents would be able to start applying for the 2022-2023 school year, and would have up until April 1 to express their interest to the school district.

However, during a special school board meeting Thursday, long-time disability and special education advocate Ned Whitehead said he was concerned that these children would not be mature enough to handle the expectations of a full school day and might end up misdiagnosed with ADHD.

He referenced a Harvard University study from 2018, which suggested that children born in August in districts with a Sept. 1 cutoff are more likely to be incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD due to their immaturity when compared to their older classmates.

As part of the study, researchers examined a large insurance database for ADHD diagnoses by birth month among 407,000 elementary school children. These children were born between 2007 and 2009, and researchers followed them through 2015.

Researchers noted that children born in August had a 30% greater chance of an ADHD diagnosis in districts with a Sept. 1 cutoff compared to peers nearly a year older with September birthdays.

Whitehead added that he has spoken with many parents during his three decades as an advocate who have conveyed how their children started having difficulties in school around the second and third grade.

They were predominantly children with summer birthdays who tested well academically, but struggled in other ways.

“Certainly these students are bright and they may know their numbers and they may be able to read, but they are not ready emotionally for the rigors of school,” Whitehead said.

As an alternative to the early enrollment option, he called on district leaders to invest in gifted programs to help develop these students when they are more emotionally ready to handle the rigors of school.

“If we already are improperly diagnosing kids in August, what’s going to happen to those kids who are passing this test,” Whitehead said.

School board President Judy Sourbeer, having volunteered in kindergarten classrooms for nine years, said she agreed with Whitehead.

According to school board member Ryan Allen, they are only opening the door for parents who want the option and feel their child might be ready, as long as the children can pass the testing.

“I don’t think it’s going to amount to a whole lot,” Allen continued. “We’re just giving those parents an opportunity. If their kids end up being gifted, who are we to go against what those parents want.”

The policy change could mean that five to seven children become eligible each year, according to Briggs, citing the district’s findings from looking at the issue two years ago.

As Whitehead urged the school board to rely on the experts, school board member J. Scott May countered that the parents, not Harvard University, are the experts when it comes to their own children.

“You can find studies on anything,” Allen added.

School board member Arica Jennings said they took a variety of factors into consideration when developing the policy, and believed it is a solid plan moving forward, especially with the testing, that gives parents a choice.

“I’m a September baby,” she added. “I was deemed gifted throughout my entire elementary career, and I struggled with being with my classmates because I was more mature than they were. I was always friends with the upper classmen.”

The school board will next meet at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 12 in the Canton High School cafeteria.

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