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Votes against early kindergarten signal shift for Helena schools

Feature photo: Time for Helena's elementary students to head back to school

Travis Owens hugs his daughter on the first day of school at Hawthorne Elementary in this IR file photo.

In the past, Helena's school board has typically honored staff recommendations to let certain children start kindergarten early. 

This changed in June, when the school board denied recommendations to grant early admission to two children with birthdays after the Sept. 10 cutoff, even though evaluations by school staff found that both prospective students were at the same level as those who met the age cutoff.

School psychologist Erika McMillin, who works with a team that oversees these early kindergarten evaluations, said about one-third to 50% of the children who apply for early admission are not recommended for approval by the team. However, she said she could not think of another time that the school board has denied early admission for a child who was recommended for approval by the team. 

According to McMillin, the number of Helena children seeking early kindergarten admission has ebbed and flowed over the years and ranges from zero to four children each year. 

The process begins with a request to the school district. That request is then sent to Assistant Superintendent Josh McKay and the principal of the school the child would attend. McMillin said each individual school might handle these requests differently, which can create some inconsistency. For example, Jim Darcy Elementary School, which is already crowded, might handle these requests differently than Hawthorn Elementary School, which has fewer students. 

The second major step in the process is observation of the potential student. A school psychiatrist like McMillin sets up two different assessments with the parents. The first is an individual assessment using the Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning, or DIAL-4, between the psychiatrist and potential student. For the second assessment, the psychiatrist passively observes the child. McMillin said it is preferable to observe the child in a school-like setting, such as pre-kindergarten, but in the past she has observed them in other settings such as during playground play. What is important for this portion is that the children are observed in a social setting in order to gauge their social interaction skills. 

The psychiatrist then submits a two to three page report detailing the findings and the team, led by McKay, makes a recommendation that goes before the Board of Trustees. It is then up to the board to decide whether to approve the early admissions. The requests are submitted per policy 3010, which is set by the board of trustees. 

McMillian said DIAL-4 is standardized across the United States for this kind of evaluation. The child is evaluated for a number of skills including motor, concepts, language, self-help development and social-emotional development. The observation portion takes approximately 30 minutes. McMillin said she generally spends two to three hours per evaluation. 

"It's good to know which specific areas kids can work on," McMillin said. "Motor skills, for instance, won't necessarily preclude a child from kindergarten, but it gives the psychiatrist an idea of what they should work on."

For McMillin, it's important that people understand the test isn't a guarantee of the children's performance when they actually go to kindergarten. Children develop and change a lot between August and September. This is especially so when dealing with kindergarten-age students. It's because of this rapid development that McMillin doesn't believe that more extensive testing would necessarily better indicate any child's kindergarten readiness.

"The test is only indicative of how well you do on the test," McMillin said. "It doesn't necessarily prove that they would perform well in kindergarten." 

It's also important to note that DIAL-4 isn't actually assessing the child's kindergarten readiness. DIAL-4 is simply comparing how a child performs in those five early childhood areas to children of typical kindergarten age. McKay said the district does not use a direct kindergarten readiness assessment.

This is all part of the process that the administration wants to more clearly define. McMillin said McKay and the team will continue working to further refine this process. 

"There is not any right or wrong answer. There is just a decision to be made," McMillin said. "The hope is that the system picks up on your needs and meets you where you are." 

Board of trustees decision

At the June board meeting, trustees Siobhan Hathhorn, Terry Beaver and John McEwen voted not to let the two children start kindergarten early. Trustees Luke Muszkiewicz and Elizabeth "Libby" Goldes voted to allow the early admissions. Trustees Sarah Sullivan and Jeff Hindoien were absent. 

The emotional maturity of the potential students was called into question by trustees Hathhorn and Goldes. In particular, Goldes quested the development of an early kindergarten student once he or she reaches high school and middle school age. DIAL-4 does test a child's emotional development, but McMillin agreed that thinking ahead is incredibly important when considering early kindergarten.

"Do you want your kid to be the first kid to drive or the last kid to drive in high school?" McMillin asked. "You also need to consider things like when the student will go through puberty."

The district also uses a questionnaire for the child's parent and teacher to evaluate the student's social an emotional development, in addition to McMillin's own observation. The questionnaire, while helpful, is based on a parent or adult perspective. 

Hathhorn questioned why the decision fell to the board of trustees. She also gave numerous reasons why she was against the early start.

"I see some downsides of starting early that I think far outweigh the upsides," Hathhorn said. "I've always felt it's best to err on the side of being older than younger."

Among the possible downsides she noted are age restrictions for non-school activities, joining peer groups outside school and lagging emotional development. She reiterated her belief in the importance of having a cutoff date and questioned what good would come from letting children start school early. 

McEwen's argument against admission was the tax it would put on the school resources. McEwen said he believes there is already a high demand on school staff members to provide services and address the needs and issues facing students the district is obligated to care for. 

"The law provides that children must be 5 by Sept. 10 to enter kindergarten," McEwen said. "Yes, the school board can make exceptions, but the exceptions require school counseling staff to conduct an assessment. These take time." 

McEwen said he is not in favor of adding further obligations that place additional time demands on the staff, although students who are admitted early would theoretically use the same amount of resources regardless of when they start school. Additionally, the school does receive the same ANB funding, or "average number belonging," as a student with a birth date prior to Sept. 10. 

"I did vote in support of the superintendent's recommendation to early admit two students into kindergarten. Given the process that district staff used to determine whether or not these two children were ready for kindergarten, I saw no reason to question their recommendation," said board chair Muszkiewicz. "So, it's not so much that I have strong opinions about early kindergarten admission, but that I was comfortable that our process was sound and in alignment with our policy." 

However, the level of discussion and split vote at the meeting was an indicator to Muszkiewicz that the board needs to revisit its policy regarding early admission to "ensure that our board and superintendent are aligned and that our policies and procedures ensure we are doing the right thing for kids."


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