(NOTE: The names of the mothers and daughters in this story have been changed to protect potential Parent Social Committee appointments and prevent room mother throw-downs.)
Five-year-old Olivia Morrison is coloring and singing and skipping her way through the final days of kindergarten at her Williamson County public school. After a few months of summer vacation, her schoolmates will meet again in the first grade classrooms. Olivia won’t be among them.
Instead, she’ll be starting kindergarten all over again, this time at one of Nashville’s private Catholic schools.
“She was on the weaker side as far as academics go,” her mother, Sue, explains. “Her new school tends to be a little stressful, and I didn’t want her to not be as good as everyone else.”
Olivia is hardly alone.
Every year, hundreds of Nashville-area private school parents “redshirt” their kindergarten-aged children, holding them out for a year or two until they’re bigger or more mature. Many of these redshirted kids go to public school kindergarten in the meantime. Their parents hope it will give them an edge in private school admissions testing and, later, in the classroom.
The double kindergarten practice is frustrating to moms like Maria Anderson, whose own five-year-old daughter will attend Olivia’s new school this fall with only a year of preschool under her 5T belt. Maria’s afraid her child will lag behind the kindergarten vets.
“Obviously, I’m concerned about academics,” Maria told me. “Those kids have a leg up. But also, [with] socialization. They’ve eaten in a cafeteria, they know how to walk into school, hang up their backpacks, sit on the carpet. She’s going to go into a class with 25 kids and I’m willing to bet that 10 to 15 of them have already had a year of kindergarten somewhere else.”
It’s ‘competiparenting’ at its finest. And it’s only getting worse.
“That kind of waiting-out, particularly for boys, has been common at Ensworth, USN and Harding for years,” a local mom and former private school administrator told me recently. “Many of the elite private elementary schools ‘officially’ accept kindergartners who are 5, but in reality, tend toward kids (particularly boys) who are 6 or even 7. My son started kindergarten at 5 years old. There were two 7-year-old boys in the same class. My daughter also started at 5, with three 7-year-olds.”
Some education experts say such a wide range of ages can take a toll on a classroom.
“If you gear the class toward the older children, the younger guys get left behind,” says Catherine McTamaney, a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt. “If you gear it toward the younger children, you spend a lot of your time dealing with behavioral issues with the older guys. We've created a monster in these structures, and these kinds of parent games just feed it.”
It’s bad enough in kindergarten, but many moms have told me that once puberty sets in, the age separation gap in private schools gets even more noticeable.
“When your daughter is in eighth grade, do you really want her with a boy who could be a sophomore in high school?” Maria asked. “Some of these boys in eighth grade look like men to me! Some of them can’t even fit in the elementary school desks for crying out loud.”
I shook my head in sympathy for Maria when she told me this, thanking my lucky stars that as a public school parent, I didn’t have to worry about these kinds of issues. Instead, I can focus my concerns on more pressing matters, like who hid that loaded gun in his locker at my stepdaughters’ high school, or how a drug dealer approached my 18-year-old in the school library, or whether that flasher is still hanging out at the bus stop on the other side of the fence.
Still, it burns me to think that a percentage of kids at my 5-year-old daughter’s public school kindergarten this fall will be there as nothing more than pawns in a parent game to make them seem smarter when they enter private school.
I think the notion that two years of kindergarten could significantly increase a child’s intelligence is ridiculous. Dr. McTamaney seems to agree.
“You can't push kids' development to build a higher-achieving kid any more than you can shake a cocoon to build a more beautiful butterfly,” she says.
At the same time, I have to admit that if I were a private school parent, I would feel a major temptation to keep up with the Frists. If everyone else is doing two years of kindergarten, why would I send my daughter into that environment without the same kind of preparation?
“She’s going into the lion’s den,” Sue told me. After we talked for a few minutes, she admitted she’d never have sent Olivia to public kindergarten this year if the other parents weren’t doing it.
“I wish they’d never started this,” she said. “Kindergarten should be kindergarten. It aggravates me that they expect so much out of them at such a young age.”
But who are “they,” exactly? The private schools? Or the parents?
Read more of Lindsay’s columns at www.suburbanturmoil.com