Last school year was hard enough. Denise Ladson Johnson’s son Moses struggled with the abrupt transition to distance learning in the spring, with having to say goodbye to his teacher and classmates and not knowing when he’d see them again. It didn’t help that Moses was only in prekindergarten at the time.
The instability was a big reason Ladson Johnson, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, decided to homeschool Moses this year rather than enrolling him in his district’s kindergarten program. There were too many “uncertainties,” Ladson Johnson said. How could Moses, who’s now 6, learn lessons and social skills remotely?
She didn’t want him to spend his days in front of a computer. She wanted him to enjoy being a kindergartner.
Ladson Johnson is among the potentially hundreds of thousands of parents who decided not to enroll their kindergarten-aged children in traditional schools this academic year.
Although national statistics aren’t available, one NPR survey last fall of more than 60 districts in 20 states found that enrollment dips have been especially pronounced in kindergarten – on average, these districts have 16% fewer kindergartners than they did during the 2019-2020 school year. A separate analysis of 33 states by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press found that kindergarten opt-outs have been the biggest driver of the overall K-12 enrollment decline, accounting for 30% of the total reductions.
A slew of private schools have cropped up to meet the demand, and many day cares have developed ad hoc programs tailored to would-be kindergartners. Meanwhile, most of the pandemic-era learning pods nationally appear to target or be available exclusively to younger students, according to a recent analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education of 330 such pods, in which small groups of students learn together in a home or another nonschool setting.
Jody Britten, an Indianapolis-area-based educator and researcher who oversees the national Early Learning Alliance Network, said at least 16 new private kindergarten programs emerged in her region between July and September of last year. Some of the preschool providers she surveyed said would-be kindergartners account for a significant majority of their enrollment this school year.
The recent tendency toward kindergarten alternatives makes a lot of sense – Zoom school has been challenging for many students of all ages, and a growing body of research indicates that’s especially true for young children.
Plus, federal data from 2018 shows most states don’t require kindergarten attendance.
But the decision to opt out of kindergarten right now could have implications that extend well beyond the current school year, educators argue, particularly if elementary schools fail to adjust their expectations of what kindergarten and first grade should entail once the pandemic recedes.
A different form of redshirting
In a typical year, roughly 5% of would-be kindergartners are redshirted, meaning their entrance into school is delayed. Historically, these children have tended to be white, male and relatively affluent. Starting kindergarten at an older age than their peers, the thinking goes, could give them a competitive edge academically in the long run.
In his 2008 book Outliers, the author Malcolm Gladwell famously promoted academic redshirting, citing a study showing that kindergarten age-cutoff dates predict a child’s chances at college enrollment.
That redshirting has traditionally been seen as a way of gaming the system is in part why some parents did, despite the limitations and instability of distance learning, decide to enroll their kindergartners in public school this year. “It wouldn’t be fair because so many people don’t have that option” of pulling their children out of the school system,” said Joshua Pierce, whose kids, ages 4 and 7, attend a bilingual public school in Boston.
“It’s critical more now than ever to support public schools, to work with them to ensure your kids are attending as much as possible,” Pierce continued, noting that “enrollment is a huge driver” of schools’ funding.
But as experts suggest, this year isn’t an…