The dates by when West Virginia children must enter kindergarten and must be offered free kindergarten and pre-kindergarten are set to change in the coming years.
Gov. Jim Justice on Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 186, which will eventually move from Sept. 1 to July 1 the cutoff date for when a child must be a certain age before being eligible, and eventually being required, to enroll in different levels of early education.
In recent years, the three months with the most births came after July 1.
Starting in the 2018-19 school year, free early education programs will have to be offered statewide to all kids who are 4 years old by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of the school year in which their families plan to enroll them. Public school systems’ fiscal years begin July 1, and each fiscal year contains a single school year.
Enrollment in 4-year-old pre-kindergarten will continue to be voluntary.
Beginning in the 2019-20 school year, county public school systems must offer to provide kindergarten to all children who are 5 years old by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of the school year in which their families plan to enroll them.
Also as of that school year, all children who are 6-years-old by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of a school year must enroll in kindergarten. Home-schooled and private-schooled students would still be exempted from public school attendance.
Provisional data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System show that in each of the last three years, July, August and September were West Virginia’s top three months for births (although data isn’t yet available for October-December 2016).
In 2013, September wasn’t in the top three, but August and July were No. 1 and No. 2.
In 2014, September was the high month with 1,833 births, compared to that year’s monthly average of 1,688. In 2015, August was the high month with 1,812, compared to that year’s monthly average of 1,687. In 2016, August, at 1,777 births, had the highest number out of the monthly data reported so far.
Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, the bill’s lead sponsor, previously said he spoke with about 45 teachers who were concerned children were starting school too early.
“They noticed that summer babies were having trouble, in kindergarten, starting in kindergarten, some of them were getting held back,” Jeffries said.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, voted against the bill, expressing concern that it could widen existing gaps when young children don’t receive schooling.
“When that child turns 3 years old, that child is no longer eligible for Birth to Three,” Unger said. “And it’s not until they turn 4 years old that they can go into early childhood education, so we already have a year gap.”
West Virginia’s Birth to Three program, according to its website, supports kids under 3 years old who have a developmental delay in one or more areas including learning, social/emotional skills and communication. It also supports children who have risk factors for delays, which can include “family stressors.”
The state also has a free, voluntary pre-kindergarten program available for 3-year-olds with special needs and all 4-year-olds. The state doesn’t have guaranteed pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds without special needs.
Monica DellaMea, executive director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning, has said any gaps in early education that it could create would be “very few and far between.”
DellaMea said each county school system has an early entry policy that can allow children who don’t meet the age cutoff to possibly still enroll. She said parents can ask their local school system about its policy, which often “involves some sort of testing of the child to see where they’re at developmentally.”