- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

Recent policy changes by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) are eliciting mixed reactions from military families.

In April, DoDEA announced it would evaluate staffing needs within its kindergarten and middle-school programs for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years that begin in August and end in June.

DoDEA also announced that it will shift the kindergarten entrance age requirement for the 2009-10 school year from Oct. 31 to Sept. 1. A child must now be five years of age by Sept. 1 to enter kindergarten. The DoDEA establishes regulations for schools on military bases; military families living on bases may either send their children to the available DoDEA schools, opt for private schools or home-school.

DoDEA initially announced a two-part staffing proposal. It called for reducing the kindergarten pupil-to-teacher ratio from the current standard of 29:1 to 18:1 while eliminating full-time aide support. Full-time aide support consists of a paid employee who is not an educator but who helps the teacher manage the children. The proposal also called for a review of middle school programs and staffing.

On June 3, DoDEA released a statement reversing its initial proposal to eliminate full-time aide support to kindergarten classes and finalized decreasing pupil-to-teacher ratio to 18:1: “Every kindergarten teacher, regardless of the pupil-to-teacher ratio, will have a full-time educational aide for the school year 2009-10,” the agency said.

“I think it would be a fantastic change,” said Kristina Crow, an Army spouse, about the decrease in students in kindergarten classes. This year, Mrs. Crow had two children enrolled at West Point Elementary School (WPES) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. “Class size had been our biggest concern when my daughter started kindergarten this year.”

Shannon Williams, a military parent of two children in the DoDEA system, was initially concerned about the proposed elimination of full-time aide for kindergarten and was happy to see a change. “It is really crucial to have another person in the classroom so the teacher can concentrate on teaching. I hope the change is not just a one-year thing,” she said.

Fourteen schools in the DoDEA system have said they are able to enact the 18:1 ratio change for the 2009-10 school year.

“We have a number of facilities that are not able to accommodate the students,” said DoDEA Director Shirley Miles about the schools that are not implementing the new pupil-to-teacher standard. But when asked if she wanted to eventually roll out the 18:1 pupil-to-teacher ratio to all DoDEA schools, Mrs. Miles said that it is “my hope that we will be able to do it.”

While the pupil-to-teacher ratio change in kindergarten classes has some parents encouraged about the upcoming school year, other military families are still reeling from how the decision to change the kindergarten entrance age requirement from Oct. 31 to Sept. 1 for the 2009-10 school year was implemented.

“While I see the reason for the change, I don’t understand how they can make it after the start of school,” said Liv Blanning, a military spouse who lives at the U.S. Military Academy and whose daughter attended pre-kindergarten this year at WPES.

Although in the works for several years, the formal memorandum announcing the new policy was issued Nov. 7 after the start of the DoDEA school year that began Aug. 14.

Pre-kindergarten students like Mrs. Blanning’s daughter will not be included in the exceptions that cover existing kindergarten and first-grade students in the DoDEA system for next year. But they will be allowed to repeat the DoDEA pre-kindergarten program if they are not five years old by Sept. 1.

Mrs. Miles said that DoDEA had been evaluating the kindergarten age requirement for two years. “We do a lot of research before we change any kind of policy,” Mrs. Miles said. “Our hope is that their teachers will give [repeating pre-schoolers] differentiated instruction.”

“This is going to affect their emotional state, seeing their peers in the next grade and them staying behind,” wrote Danielle Feliciano, an Army family member living at Fort Campbell, Ky., in a post to a Facebook group she formed to organize against the decision.

The effect of this change has caused some families to look at other schooling options, like Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Highland Falls, N.Y., a private, parochial outside of the West Point gate, where the students meet the New York State age requirements, five years old by Dec. 1, for kindergarten.

“We’ve always seen a pretty good interest from the West Point community,” Sacred Heart Principal Donna Sutton said. “This year, we are filling up a little bit faster. Certainly, there are the families who said ‘yes because of the change in cut-off.”

One of those families is the Nestler family, whose younger daughter went to WPES for pre-kindergarten this year. Her family has decided that she will attend kindergarten at Sacred Heart in the fall instead of repeating pre-kindergarten at WPES.

“I will have to drive off post and deal with two different schools, pay for private school, while my husband is deployed for the next six months,” Kristin Nestler said. She lives 150 yards from WPES and says her daughter is ready for kindergarten. Mrs. Nestler has taken her fight to the school board, the district superintendent, DoDEA and beyond. In the end, an exemption to the new policy was denied.

Mrs. Nestler is not alone in voicing her concern. More than 55 people whose children have been affected by the policy change have signed an online petition seeking an exemption for children already enrolled in pre-kindergarten.

When asked why existing pre-kindergarten students were not grandfathered along with the kindergartners and first-graders with the change in policy, Mrs. Miles said that pre-kindergarten was not a prerequisite for kindergarten.

“[Students] may be academically ready, but not socially ready,” Mrs. Miles said. She cited examples she had been given by kindergarten teachers who expressed issues with younger students. But she added that she “understood the concern that some parents had that we did not grandfather in the pre-kindergarten students.”

• Janine Boldrin is a writer living at West Point, N.Y. She is an Army spouse.

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