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Opinion: If Legislature wants kids ready for kindergarten, invest in quality pre-k

Mindy Binderman is executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students and Stephanie Blank is GEEARS board chair and strategic adviser to the Arthur Blank Foundation. They co-wrote this column on the proposed change to the age in which children can begin kindergarten in Georgia.

By Mindy Binderman and Stephanie Blank

State lawmakers are considering a proposal to change the age of kindergarten eligibility in Georgia. The concern about children’s readiness for school is a reminder of the importance of high-quality early education.

While the chronological age considerations that our legislators are debating is important, equally critical is what comes before a child turns 4 1/2  or 5. The foundation of skills needed in school – and the workplace – is built during a child’s earliest years.

In 2013, nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s fourth graders scored below proficient on national standardized tests for reading and math. We must intervene early to build the foundation from which all learning, behavior and health depend.

A large body of research shows that students who receive high-quality early education are more developed cognitively, socially, emotionally and academically than their peers who did not receive a similar education. We must capitalize on every single moment of a child’s first five years by enrolling them in high-quality early education programs, reading and talking with them, and interacting in ways that promote language and literacy development.

 Today, a child in Georgia must be 5  by Sept. 1 in order to enroll in kindergarten. The House bill under consideration would move that date to Aug. 1 for the upcoming school year – and June 30 thereafter.

Champions of this bill say it is necessary because many of Georgia’s 4-year-olds lack classroom experience and, therefore, are not ready to succeed in kindergarten.

The additional preparation months for late summer birthdays proposed in HB 100 will only make a difference if those students are spending that time in learning and language rich environments.

 The formative years of birth through 5 offer the biggest opportunity to make a meaningful, lifelong impact on Georgia’s children. Kindergarten readiness means more than blowing out five candles on a birthday cake, packing a lunch and buying a new book bag. The brain building that is the foundation for later school success begins when an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug.

With that reciprocal human communication, and with continued interactions between children and their parents or teachers, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills.

When you play peekaboo with a baby, you are stimulating important brain growth. And when a toddler is encouraged to stack blocks, read a book with a teacher, learn new vocabulary, and play with play dough at a high quality child care program, that child is learning valuable skills that will increase school readiness. 

A toddler in a 4-year-old Pre-K classroom learning new vocabulary through play, telling stories and learning classroom routine is far more likely to arrive at school for kindergarten ready to learn. 

We applaud the Legislature’s focus on school readiness. At the same time, we urge them to increase access to affordable, high-quality preschool and pre-kindergarten programs that focus on language rich interactions between students and teachers. That’s the proven path to improved outcomes in kindergarten and beyond.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.