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Some parents say 'redshirting' kindergarten-age kids pays dividends

Carter Schmitz, right, raises his hand to answer a math question Friday during Erin Peterson's second grade class at South Elementary in West Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum1 / 2
Carter Schmitz works on a math problem during Erin Peterson's second grade class at South Elementary in West Fargo, N.D. on Friday, March 9, 2012. Carrie Snyder / The Forum2 / 2

WEST FARGO, N.D. -- When most people think of "redshirting," they think of first-year college athletes practicing with their teams, getting stronger and sitting out game day.

But is a redshirt needed for learning letters, finger-painting and recess?

It's a choice more parents are demanding for their children as they look to give their kids an edge, according to a "60 Minutes" report last weekend.

That may seem counterintuitive, given the emphasis in the past few years on all-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes to prepare children for rigorous studies in later grades.

Still, some area parents who've held their children back a year from kindergarten swear by the results.

A few years back, when Staci Schmitz's son, Carter, was eligible at age 5 to go into kindergarten, she and her husband decided to hold off. It's a decision they don't regret, the West Fargo kindergarten teacher said.

"His birthday is Aug. 7, and I hate to brag, but he's very smart. And he probably would have been fine academically in kindergarten," Schmitz said.

But they opted for another year of preschool. "We wanted him to become more social. We wanted him to be more emotionally ready," she said.

Now, Carter is in second grade at South Elementary and doing well, she said.

"He's very successful in all areas right now," Schmitz said. "I recommend to all my friends and families that if they have a child with a summer birthday, that they wait."

Maria Effertz Hanson is also glad she and her husband held their son, Wyatt, back a year, even though he was born in May.

"One of the best moves we made for him and our sanity!" she wrote.

Wyatt is now in third grade in the Velva (N.D.) Public School and thriving.

"I see it as a huge benefit for him. He's just more confident. He can make decisions," she said.

"It has nothing to do with smarts. It has to do with being able to handle what the world throws at you," Effertz Hanson said.

"Redshirting" kindergarteners doesn't generate the same buzz in Fargo-Moorhead as it has elsewhere, local school administrators say. Parents have long had the choice whether to enter their children in kindergarten "on time," per guidelines set by Minnesota and North Dakota.

In Minnesota, a child must be age 5 by Sept. 1 to enter kindergarten. In North Dakota, a child must be 5 by Aug. 1. In both states, a child is required to enroll in school by age 7.

Educators' views

Fargo Superintendent Rick Buresh worked as an elementary principal early in his career and counseled many parents on the decision. He and his wife also opted for two of their five children to start a year late.

"For most people, starting at the age=appropriate time probably works out," Buresh said. "If they're not confident about their decision to send him yet, they probably are right to hold back a year."

The decision depends on the maturity of the child, Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash said.

Last year, Kovash said perhaps 11 children in the Moorhead School District eligible to go to kindergarten delayed to allow for further academic, social or emotional growth, she said. (The true figure is unknown because some parents just don't register their child, she said.)

Her birthday is Sept. 12, and she remembers always being the youngest person in her classes.

"I guess I'm OK," Kovash said.

At West Fargo's Clayton A. Lodoen Kindergarten Center, Principal Betty Hanson said about 20 students are annually held back another year.

"Some of them haven't had a lot of experiences outside of home," she said.

She said "redshirting" is just a snarky new name for an established practice.

"That's been going on forever," Hanson said. "Even as old as I am, there were some kids in my class that were held back by their parents."

But she doesn't knock the potential benefits for some children.

"When you think about a newborn and you think about a 1 year old -- that's that whole span (of potential learning) that we have in each grade," she said.

Redshirting can get out of hand if the drive is to get a child into a top-notch college or have him or her excel in sports, Hanson said.

"I think parents are a little more driven now, as far as college entrance and sports, because those have benefits" in terms of scholarships and jobs, she said.

Rachel Bergeson said she and her husband will likely have their son wait a year for kindergarten.

The former junior-high teacher is Concordia College's associate athletic director, and her husband, Bryant, teaches junior high in the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton district. From their research, they believe a delay will benefit their son academically, athletically and emotionally.

"We're just making the choice now not to send him in the fall," she said. "We feel it's the right choice for our kid."

Sarah Walberg of Leonard, N.D., has seen both sides of the decision and is happier with the results of delaying kindergarten.

Her oldest daughter is 14, and while she's done well in school and athletics, there were points where she's had a hard time emotionally, Walberg said.

Holding her 6-year-old daughter (soon to be 7) out of kindergarten an extra year is something, "I will never regret," she said.

She's leery of having her youngest daughter - who turns 5 in March - start kindergarten this fall, even though a fourth child is due in September and her life will be easier if all the older children are in school.

"I don't want to make that mistake again," she said. "I still think we're probably leaning towards keeping her at home."

Schmitz, the West Fargo kindergarten teacher, said kindergarten is a more intense academic experience than in the past.

"Basically, kindergarten is like the new first grade," she said. "The academic demands are very, very high. ... They're writing one-, two-, three-sentence stories. The books they're reading have multiple lines of text on the page. It's pretty demanding."

She said many parents think that because state law says a child can start school at age 5, they must. Not so, she tells them. They can wait. And it can make a long-term difference.

Schmitz said friends who teach at the middle-school level can see the difference nine or 10 months of development makes between the youngest and oldest students in their grades.

"A lot of parents say over the years that they wish they would have waited. I've never had a parent say they wish they'd sent them early," Schmitz said.