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Age is key to making the grade, mom says

 
Published March 8, 1999|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

You gotta give this to Ann Briggs: She thinks ahead.

The Safety Harbor woman has a son, Eric, who is 2 years, 3 months old, and a daughter, Gemma, who turned 6 months old on Thursday. But here is what is on her mind:

Kindergarten.

More precisely, Briggs' concern is the exact point at which her children will enter kindergarten. Will it be when she thinks they are ready _ or will it be when the state of Florida commands it?

Briggs is upset over a bill in the Legislature that would reduce the compulsory school attendance age in Florida from 6 to 5. Any child who turned 5 before Sept. 1 would have to go to school that same year.

Now, it should be said that this would not make a huge difference in Florida, number-wise. The vast majority of parents enroll their kids at 5 anyway, because you can't get into the first grade until you complete kindergarten.

But for a few children who might need a little more time, Briggs is worried. Her daughter, Gemma, was born on Aug. 4. If the Legislature so orders, she will enter kindergarten having barely turned 5. She could sit next to a child nearly a full year older, larger, stronger, more advanced.

Maybe Gemma will be ready. Maybe not. Briggs knows a couple with children 22 months apart, almost two full years, but only one grade apart.

"It should be at the parents' discretion," argues Briggs, who was a registered nurse and worked in medical marketing before choosing full-time motherhood. "You could be putting that child at a great disadvantage, in a situation where they're so far behind emotionally, socially and developmentally."

This is a year in which the Legislature is tripping over itself to Do Something about education. There's also a plan to forbid dropping out until 18. The idea is, Florida can claim to be one of a few states with compulsory attendance from 5 to 18, for all the good that does.

"In the best of worlds, you wouldn't use a date at all," Yvonne McKitrick told me. She is the interim principal of the USF Charter School in Tampa, a former two-term Hillsborough School Board member, a former teacher, principal and early education specialist.

"You would have a good test performed by a person who knew how to interpret that test," McKitrick said. "I don't have an easy solution. I just wonder, what is it we're trying to rush these children into? To read what, Green Eggs and Ham? To have them sit for long periods at a time?"

Marianne Easton is the supervisor of early childhood education in Pinellas schools. Easton often counsels parents who are deciding whether to keep their child in preschool another year. She discusses with them how the child interacts with others of the same age. In general, 5-year-old boys are less ready than 5-year-old girls in matters such as attention span or the ability to sit still.

"I still think it's best for parents to have the option" of not enrolling children at the earliest possible second, Easton said. A small number of parents end up delaying kindergarten the extra year. Far more common are the parents trying to get their child in early.

That rush to achieve is what bothers Briggs. "Our society is kind of expecting such precociousness of children," Briggs told me. "Should they turn out to be normal kids, we're not very accepting of that. We portray children in movies and television as so far beyond their years, so smart." There's even a movie coming out titled Baby Geniuses, supposedly a comedy, but it bothers Briggs:

"We're not letting kids be kids."

Briggs admits to being in the minority. Many parents out there, especially the ones who started reading the classics and playing Mozart to their children in the womb, would disagree. The Legislature, posturing to look as if it is Doing Something about education, probably will not be swayed.

As for me, I think she sounds like a pretty good mom.