Susan Volbrecht

 When my phone rings with an “unknown” number, I can assume it is one of my 2nd-grade students calling from a cell phone. When I answer, I hear this:

“The water is deep,
The sharks are thin,
The waves are strong
So come on in!”

It’s Marvin. His mother and grandmother work late, so he doesn’t have anyone around to listen as he practices his weekly poem–every Monday he receives a new poem to help him build reading fluency. Last August, we were working on pre-kindergarten level tasks such as letter names and sounds and print concepts. He takes home extra homework every night, did a 180 on his behavior, and receives reading interventions. By May, he has made nearly three grade levels of growth, to a middle 1st-grade level.  But it isn’t enough—he is still a year behind because he did not attend kindergarten.

In the state of Illinois, pre-k and kindergarten are not legal requirements.  The arrival of the Common Core standards significantly raises expectations for students, which will ultimately result in kindergarteners who can read independently and form their own ideas about texts. Marvin will need to be prepared to compete with these students for scholarships and careers, but it will be extremely difficult for him to catch up or surpass these children.

In a National Education Association report titled Full-Day Kindergarten: An Advocacy Guide, researchers found that students who attended full-day programs were less likely to repeat grades or drop out.  This results in a return on investment of $3 for every $1, not to mention giving children the better education they deserve.

No school till age 7

Illinois currently competes with all other states for federal funds, yet it is one of the 15 states that do not mandate kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the States. In fact, children in Illinois are not required to attend school until age 7, which is far too late. Needless to say, we are not measuring up.

Studies have established links between attendance in kindergarten to high school and college graduation rates.  Language specialists have shown that this is a critical time in a child’s life for acquiring oral language skills and absorbing new vocabulary — an ability that decreases with age.  At 5 years old, no child should be staying home, isolated from peers and a print-rich environment. With low enrollment becoming an increasing problem in Illinois’ public schools, making kindergarten mandatory would help fill our under-utilized buildings, secure more jobs for teachers, keep young children off the streets, and prepare students for college and the career of their choice.  In short, nobody loses!

So why haven’t we done this yet?  At last, Chicago Public Schools announced that all schools will offer full-day kindergarten.  This removes one major barrier as full-day kindergarten classes fill up quickly, but approximately only 57 percent of kindergarten programs across the state are full-day programs. Making kindergarten attendance a legal requirement would increase the number of families sending their children to school at an early age. 

It’s time for Illinois to look at the youngest school-aged children and demand they be allowed to start on the right foot. 

Susan Volbrecht is in her eighth year as a teacher in Chicago. She is a current Teach Plus Policy Fellow and a new member of the Catalyst Chicago editorial board. 

Editor’s Note: Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed a law that will lower the mandatory age for school attendance to 6 years old, effective fall 2014.

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