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Drop in Arizona students enrolled in kindergarten raises concerns

PHOENIX — The coronavirus pandemic appears to be driving Arizona parents to postpone their children’s entrance into kindergarten, which is raising concerns about students losing out on the benefits of early education.

Enrollment in K-12 public schools statewide is down 5% compared to the end of the last school year. The drop is even bigger among kindergarten, with 14% fewer students enrolled this year.

Though kindergarten is optional in Arizona, it plays an important role in a child’s early education.

“Kindergarten is really critical in laying the foundation for success in school,” said Christine Thompson, president and CEO of the advocacy group Expect More Arizona. “Schools that are focused on ensuring that students are able to read by third grade really start that process in kindergarten.”

Students usually begin learning the alphabet and phonemic awareness in kindergarten, which Thompson said helps them prepare the third grade reading test.

Arizona’s Move on When Reading law implemented in 2013 requires third graders to “demonstrate sufficient reading skills” on their reading test in order to be promoted to the next grade level.

Arizona Department of Education data shows 46% of third grade students in Arizona last year scored proficient or highly proficient on the reading portion of the statewide AzMERIT test.

Thompson said children who sit out kindergarten may not only miss out academically but also socially. That’s because students in kindergarten learn social skills, such as how to participate in class, follow their teacher’s instructions and interact with other students.

“There will definitely be some challenges in years to come with students who may have stayed home,” Thompson said.

At the same time, Thompson said she understands why some parents decided to delay or skip kindergarten during the pandemic. She said some may have health concerns or didn’t think online learning would be feasible for their young children.

“Perhaps some of these parents are able to provide academic support for their kids,” Thompson said. “But I’m concerned that others are at home and really aren’t getting instruction,” she added. “They’re not going to be in a quality child care program either, so there’s going to be ground to make up.”

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