COLLEGE PLACE ­— To delay or to not delay first grade, that is the question.

For Holley Bryant, principal of Rogers Adventist School, there’s no guesswork involved — giving some children a step between kindergarten and first grade earns an A-plus.

This fall, the private, faith-based K-eighth elementary school will offer a “pre-first” classroom for the first time. Although the model has been around for decades, it’s new to Rogers and not duplicated elsewhere in the area, Bryant said.

Research, much of it several years old, shows mixed results from a typical kindergarten retention. The pre-first classroom can mitigate those concerns — it still moves a student forward, but doesn’t outpace their readiness for first grade, she said.

And it’s absolutely needed in certain situations.

“We’ve been noticing two scenarios when children come into school,” Bryant said. “The parents come in, having skipped sending their child to kindergarten. In Washington state, you don’t have to send your child to kindergarten, and some people decide to do it at home. Which can be done very well …”

In some cases, however, the kindergarten year spent at home is not done well, she said, noting it’s no longer unusual for a busy parent to load a learning app on an electronic device and call it a school day after just an hour or two.

“My teachers have anecdotally noticed kids who are accustomed to tablets don’t have the attention span for a picture book. They want everything to be moving, like a video clip,” she said.

The result can be a child entering a traditional first grade without knowing their letters or how to write his or her name, among other gaps, she said.

That can mean a hit to a kid’s self esteem when they come to school and their neighbor the next seat over is sounding out “C...A...T” and they don’t even understand how letters function in language, Bryant said.

Another need arises with youngsters who are not developmentally ready for first grade: birth month, social experiences, emotional maturity, physical growth and gender all play a part in how prepared a child is to start his or her academic career, the principal pointed out, noting each person has a unique genetic and environmental blueprint that determines the best starting age.

Sometimes a kindergarten year should be followed by another kindergarten year due to those factors, Bryant said.

Not everyone can see that as a gift of time, however.

“You can’t tell a mom their child needs to repeat the class. They just react with horror and worry they’ve failed,” she said. “But we don’t want these kids to get forced through the system, either. We needed a mid-track, a half step.”

Education trends adjust as better information on how children learn emerges, the principal explained, pointing to some parents waiting to enroll their sons to gain an extra year of development. Young boys tend to mature sightly later than girls, and that extra time can put a child at the top of their class rather than toward the bottom.

A pre-first class can accomplish much of the same. As well, it can boost the student who is “more than ready” for curriculum beyond kindergarten, Bryant said.

What not everyone understands is that a youngster given that year’s grace to develop stronger academic and social skills will still be benefiting in middle school and beyond, she said.

Paying an extra year of Rogers’ tuition of about $4,000 can seem daunting and a reason to skip the pre-first idea, Bryant acknowledged while explaining most families at the school qualify for some scholarship help.

“But I think our families will save money in not paying for tutoring and extra resources to help their student get through school,” she said.

The College Place elementary school anticipates having about 20 pre-first students this coming year, in combined kindergarten and pre-first classrooms. The arrangement allows a teacher to tailor curriculum to the student, something that was already happening at Rogers to some extent, Bryant said.

“We just haven’t called it that. Teachers have always helped kids who were working ahead, to keep them inspired about advanced learning.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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