15,000 Michigan kids take two years of kindergarten. Is Lansing listening?
One in eight Michigan kindergarteners now take two years of kindergarten. That’s a financial boon to families with young children and schools, but a $127 million bill to the state for an extra year of schooling with unknown academic impact.
In essence, families and schools are stepping in where Lansing hasn’t — adding a 14th year to students’ traditional 13-year school career by enrolling children in “developmental kindergarten” that leads into traditional kindergarten, or by taking two years of regular kindergarten classes.
The surge in two-year kindergarten programs in the state is startling both because of its speed, and because it is happening without any official state policy change.
The two-year kindergarten programs are popular among families, with officials in several districts telling Bridge they have waiting lists.
Still, discrepancies in the growth of the programs are criticized by some early childhood leaders, who question whether the classes — overwhelmingly enrolling white, non-poor students — risk widening the state achievement gap. Skeptics say they also wonder whether school districts’ motives in marketing these untested programs are more about collecting an extra year of state money for each student, than about education.
“We have a 14th year of school now. I’ve been waiting for years for someone [in Lansing] to notice,” said Sean LaRosa, executive director of early childhood services at Livingston Educational Service Agency in Livingston County. “It’s like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – no one wants to say he’s buck naked.”
Unproven but popular
The number of kindergartners spending two years in public school before first grade (categorized by the state as kindergarten retentions) increased by 21 percent in the past four years. Over this same period, retention in grades one through 12 dropped by 14 percent across Michigan.
The majority of kids being retained this year appear to be among the 15,768 children who turned 5 between the Sept. 1 cutoff for traditional kindergarten and Dec. 1. Most are enrolled in what is generically called developmental kindergarten, a typically full-day program that follows the same school schedule as higher elementary grades.
The state considers developmental kindergarten and regular kindergarten to be the same, and pays school districts the same $8,111 per student foundation allowance.
Referred to by different names in different districts, such as “young 5s” or “transitional kindergarten,” the classes usually follow a similar curriculum to traditional kindergarten, but at a slower pace.
Shannon Murton, developmental kindergarten teacher in Haslett, a suburban community near Lansing, told Bridge her goal is to get her class of young 5-year-olds through about half the academic curriculum as the district covers in traditional kindergarten classes.
“The rigor of kindergarten has increased so much, a lot of parents feel their children are not ready yet,” Murton said. “When you’re lucky enough to have a child that lands in the right age-range, it’s a nice transition.”
Rather than being among the youngest children in traditional kindergarten, developmental kindergarten gives kids with fall birthdays the chance to mature emotionally, and be among the oldest in their classes when they advance the following year into traditional kindergarten.
Murton said the two developmental kindergarten classes in Haslett, a community with about half the percentage of low-income students as the state average, are filled to capacity months in advance of the school year.
Keeping students for two years of kindergarten has grown increasingly popular. Check out how many are held back in each district. To see all schools in a county, type the county's name in the box.
|Planned||Unplanned||Total students||Percent retained|
|Ann Arbor Public Schools|
|Hudsonville Public School District|
|Rockford Public Schools|
|Jenison Public Schools|
|Dearborn City School District|
|Portage Public Schools|
|Kentwood Public Schools|
|Grand Haven Area Public Schools|
|Clarkston Community School District|
|West Ottawa Public School District|
|Warren Consolidated Schools|
|Grandville Public Schools|
|Brighton Area Schools|
|Livonia Public Schools School District|
|Zeeland Public Schools|
|Grand Ledge Public Schools|
|Oxford Community Schools|
|Lapeer Community Schools|
|Grand Blanc Community Schools|
|Lake Orion Community Schools|
|Waterford School District|
|Byron Center Public Schools|
|Mattawan Consolidated School|
Van Buren County
|Kenowa Hills Public Schools|
|Dexter Community School District|
|Northview Public Schools|
|Thornapple Kellogg School District|
|Allendale Public Schools|
|North Branch Area Schools|
|Woodhaven-Brownstown School District|
|Saline Area Schools|
|Western School District|
|Fenton Area Public Schools|
|Carman-Ainsworth Community Schools|
|Davison Community Schools|
|Charlotte Public Schools|
|Lakeshore School District (Berrien)|
|Grosse Pointe Public Schools|
|Freeland Community School District|
|Marquette Area Public Schools|
|Wyandotte, School District of the City of|
|Hartland Consolidated Schools|
|Brandon School District in the Counties of Oakland and Lapeer|
|Midland Public Schools|
|Ypsilanti Community Schools|
|Cross Creek Charter Academy|
|Coldwater Community Schools|
|Berkley School District|
|Swan Valley School District|
|Kelloggsville Public Schools|
|Adrian Public Schools|
|Fraser Public Schools|
|Williamston Community Schools|
|Holly Area School District|
|Bedford Public Schools|
|Michigan Center School District|
|West Branch-Rose City Area Schools|
|Vicksburg Community Schools|
|Holland City School District|
|St. Joseph Public Schools|
|Montague Area Public Schools|
|Linden Community Schools|
|Watervliet School District|
|DeWitt Public Schools|
|Hamilton Community Schools|
|Tecumseh Public Schools|
|Berrien Springs Public Schools|
|Standish-Sterling Community Schools|
|Lincoln Consolidated School District|
|Imlay City Community Schools|
|Negaunee Public Schools|
|Niles Community Schools|
|Madison School District (Lenawee)|
|Hanover-Horton School District|
|Gibraltar School District|
|Swartz Creek Community Schools|
|Marysville Public Schools|
St. Clair County
|Van Dyke Public Schools|
|Hopkins Public Schools|
|Chelsea School District|
|Holt Public Schools|
|Lakewood Public Schools|
|Three Rivers Community Schools|
St. Joseph County
|West Bloomfield School District|
|Quincy Community Schools|
|Flat Rock Community Schools|
|Leslie Public Schools|
|Center Line Public Schools|
|Comstock Park Public Schools|
|Southgate Community School District|
|Vanderbilt Charter Academy|
|Alpena Public Schools|
|Hemlock Public School District|
|Haslett Public Schools|
|Marlette Community Schools|
|Grosse Ile Township Schools|
|Bangor Township Schools|
|Napoleon Community Schools|
|Eagle Crest Charter Academy|
|Marshall Public Schools|
|Chandler Woods Charter Academy|
|Plymouth Scholars Charter Academy|
|Trenton Public Schools|
|Vanguard Charter Academy|
|Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium & Keweenaw|
|Oakridge Public Schools|
|Eaton Rapids Public Schools|
|Excel Charter Academy|
|Taylor Exemplar Academy|
|Norway-Vulcan Area Schools|
|South Canton Scholars Charter Academy|
|South Arbor Charter Academy|
|South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy|
|Ubly Community Schools|
|Okemos Public Schools|
|Sparta Area Schools|
|Almont Community Schools|
|Stockbridge Community Schools|
|Kearsley Community School District|
|Kent City Community Schools|
|Plainwell Community Schools|
|Centreville Public Schools|
St. Joseph County
|Mona Shores Public School District|
|Cass City Public Schools|
|Hudson Area Schools|
|Ridge Park Charter Academy|
|Lake City Area School District|
|Forest Hills Public Schools|
|Coloma Community Schools|
|New Haven Community Schools|
|Walker Charter Academy|
|Saranac Community Schools|
|Leland Public School District|
|Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker Schools|
|Carrollton Public Schools|
|East Lansing School District|
|Sturgis Public Schools|
St. Joseph County
|East Jackson Community Schools|
|Sand Creek Community Schools|
|Cassopolis Public Schools|
|Clawson Public Schools|
|Godfrey-Lee Public Schools|
|Brandywine Community Schools|
|Walton Charter Academy|
|Onsted Community Schools|
|Columbia School District|
|Knapp Charter Academy|
|Grass Lake Community Schools|
|Tri County Area Schools|
|Bentley Community School District|
|Concord Community Schools|
|East Arbor Charter Academy|
|Millington Community Schools|
|Marcellus Community Schools|
|Meridian Public Schools|
|Grand Traverse Academy|
Grand Traverse County
|Chippewa Valley Schools|
|Orchard View Schools|
|Van Buren Public Schools|
|Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools|
|Houghton-Portage Township School District|
|Clinton Community Schools|
|Grand River Academy|
|Grand Rapids Public Schools|
|South Lyon Community Schools|
|Menominee Area Public Schools|
|Hartford Public Schools|
Van Buren County
|Endeavor Charter Academy|
|Ishpeming Public School District No. 1|
|North Central Area Schools|
|Allegan Public Schools|
|Spring Lake Public Schools|
|Vassar Public Schools|
|Vista Charter Academy|
|Paramount Charter Academy|
|Hazel Park, School District of the City of|
|Caledonia Community Schools|
|Utica Community Schools|
|Flint, School District of the City of|
|Morenci Area Schools|
|Redford Union Schools, District No. 1|
|Comstock Public Schools|
|Kalamazoo Public Schools|
|Clintondale Community Schools|
St. Clair County
|Mayville Community School District|
|Plymouth-Canton Community Schools|
|Walled Lake Consolidated Schools|
|Port Huron Area School District|
St. Clair County
|Burton Glen Charter Academy|
|Charyl Stockwell Academy|
|Waterford Montessori Academy|
|Warren Woods Public Schools|
|Reach Charter Academy|
|Coleman Community Schools|
|Lowell Area Schools|
|Rochester Community School District|
|Inland Lakes Schools|
|Whitehall District Schools|
|Lansing Public School District|
|Bay City School District|
|Wayne-Westland Community School District|
|Goodrich Area Schools|
|Riverview Community School District|
|Belding Area School District|
|Eastpointe Community Schools|
|Huron School District|
|Blissfield Community Schools|
|Lakeview Sch. District (Calhoun)|
|Royal Oak Schools|
|Black River Public School|
|Kingsbury Country Day School|
|Bad Axe Public Schools|
|Huron Valley Schools|
|Howell Public Schools|
|Saginaw Township Community Schools|
|Flushing Community Schools|
|Taylor School District|
|Jonesville Community Schools|
|Cedar Springs Public Schools|
|L'Anse Creuse Public Schools|
|Coopersville Area Public School District|
|Romeo Community Schools|
|Wyoming Public Schools|
|Lake Shore Public Schools (Macomb)|
|Linden Charter Academy|
|Novi Community School District|
|Byron Center Charter School|
|Honey Creek Community School|
|Detroit Public Schools Community District|
|Northwest Community Schools|
|Wayland Union Schools|
|Escanaba Area Public Schools|
|Gull Lake Community Schools|
|Saginaw, School District of the City of|
|Jackson Public Schools|
|Dundee Community Schools|
|Airport Community Schools|
|Pinckney Community Schools|
|Traverse City Area Public Schools|
Grand Traverse County
|Gladwin Community Schools|
|Paw Paw Public School District|
Van Buren County
|Lake Fenton Community Schools|
|West MI Academy of Environmental Science|
|Crawford AuSable Schools|
|Clio Area School District|
|Harper Creek Community Schools|
|Allen Park Public Schools|
|Otsego Public Schools|
|Fruitport Community Schools|
|Reading Community Schools|
|Morley Stanwood Community Schools|
|Greenville Public Schools|
|Bloomfield Hills Schools|
|Troy School District|
|Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy|
|Farwell Area Schools|
|Bronson Community School District|
|Westwood Heights Schools|
|Sandusky Community School District|
|Northville Public Schools|
|Birmingham Public Schools|
|Macomb Montessori Academy|
|Lakeview Public Schools (Macomb)|
|Mason Public Schools (Ingham)|
|Lamphere Public Schools|
|Houghton Lake Community Schools|
|Colon Community School District|
St. Joseph County
|West MI Academy of Arts and Academics|
|Island City Academy|
|Edwardsburg Public Schools|
|Hastings Area School District|
|Mt. Pleasant City School District|
|Essexville-Hampton Public Schools|
|Bullock Creek School District|
|Corunna Public Schools|
|Potterville Public Schools|
|North Muskegon Public Schools|
|Caro Community Schools|
|Ferndale Public Schools|
|Elk Rapids Schools|
|Bloomingdale Public School District|
Van Buren County
|Owosso Public Schools|
|Gwinn Area Community Schools|
|Saugatuck Public Schools|
|Addison Community Schools|
|Southfield Public School District|
|Vandercook Lake Public Schools|
|Fennville Public Schools|
|Whittemore-Prescott Area Schools|
|Muskegon, Public Schools of the City of|
|St. Charles Community Schools|
|Hancock Public Schools|
|Farmington Public School District|
|Summit Academy North|
|Unionville-Sebewaing Area S.D.|
|Light of the World Academy|
|Battle Creek Public Schools|
|Gaylord Community Schools|
|Godwin Heights Public Schools|
|Delton Kellogg Schools|
|New Branches Charter Academy|
|East China School District|
St. Clair County
|Fowlerville Community Schools|
|Hart Public School District|
|International Academy of Flint|
|Melvindale-North Allen Park Schools|
|Bendle Public Schools|
|Decatur Public Schools|
Van Buren County
|Harper Woods, The School District of the City of|
|McBain Rural Agricultural Schools|
|Holton Public Schools|
|Munising Public Schools|
|Chandler Park Academy|
|North Saginaw Charter Academy|
|Mesick Consolidated Schools|
|Lake Linden-Hubbell School District|
|St. Johns Public Schools|
|Ludington Area School District|
|Detroit Merit Charter Academy|
|The New Standard Academy|
|Ravenna Public Schools|
|Milan Area Schools|
|Madison District Public Schools|
|Oakside Scholars Charter Academy|
|Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools|
|Michigan Connections Academy|
|Legacy Charter Academy|
|Onaway Area Community School District|
Presque Isle County
|Oak Park, School District of the City of|
|Hillsdale Community Schools|
|Richfield Public School Academy|
|Beaverton Rural Schools|
|Grand Blanc Academy|
|Highpoint Virtual Academy of Michigan|
|Pittsford Area Schools|
|Carney-Nadeau Public Schools|
|Waverly Community Schools|
|Clarenceville School District|
|White Cloud Public Schools|
|Ecorse Public Schools|
|LakeVille Community School District|
|Vestaburg Community Schools|
|Johannesburg-Lewiston Area Schools|
|Adams Township School District|
|Dryden Community Schools|
|Owendale-Gagetown Area School District|
|Universal Learning Academy|
Spurred by third-grade reading law
Several state education leaders date the growth in two-year kindergarten programs to the passage of Michigan’s third-grade reading law in 2016 that recommends third-graders be held back if they are more than a year behind in reading. The Legislature delayed implementation of the law until the current 2019-20 school year to give schools time to beef up early reading efforts.
Getting kids in school a year earlier could give schools more time to help them become good readers, said Richard Lower, director of the Preschool and Out-of-School Time Learning Office of Great Start in the Michigan Department of Education.
“Because we don’t have universal preschool in the state, schools were opening ‘early 5’ classes as a strategy for additional schooling, to better prep kids for readiness,” Lower said.
Privately, some school leaders — many of whom oppose the third-grade read-or-flunk law — said they saw an additional benefit of two-year kindergarten: Because the state considers developmental kindergarten and kindergarten to be the same, moving from the first to the second year of kindergarten is considered a retention. Children who have already been retained in a grade before third grade can’t be held back at the end of third grade because of low reading scores.
Thus, one in eight students who were in kindergarten last year will be exempt from the third-grade law.
Indeed, the strategy of deploying two-year kindergarten programs to get around the read-or-flunk law was discussed enough that MDE published a statement on its website discouraging it for that purpose.
Among a list of frequently asked questions aimed at school officials, was a question about whether schools could use developmental kindergarten as a means to avoid third-grade retentions. The department stated: “MDE is not in support of creating ‘young fives’ or ‘developmental kindergarten,’ or extra-year placement programs at any grade level with the intent of affording students ‘previously retained’ status as described in the Read by Grade Three law (MCL 380.1280f). Districts shall always appropriately place each student based on the strengths and needs of the Whole Child.”
Money plays a role
While the third-grade reading law may have sparked interest in the classes, the biggest driver of the trend, say education leaders who spoke to Bridge, is economics – both for schools and families.
Cost was one of several factors Amanda Spicuzzi considered when she enrolled her daughter in a developmental kindergarten class in Ferndale last year. Spicuzzi said she was happy with her daughter’s developmental kindergarten class, and her daughter is doing well in traditional kindergarten this year. Saving child-care costs was nice, too.
She estimates her family saved $5,400 by having their daughter in developmental kindergarten rather than fee-based preschool in suburban Detroit.
“We were in a position where we could make that choice [between child care and early kindergarten], when some families would have to enroll because they couldn’t afford another year of preschool,” Spicuzzi said.
School leaders say cost savings are a common theme.
“I’m not sure all our parents in any of our communities make the decision on whether to enroll their children [in a two-year kindergarten program] based on the developmental value,” said Peter Haines, superintendent of Ottawa Intermediate School District, where 25 percent of students take two years of kindergarten.
“Sometimes mom and dad make a decision because it allows them to not hire child care.”
There’s an economic incentive for schools, too.
Michigan school districts collected $128 million in state funding last year in per-student foundation allowance just for the children taking their second year of kindergarten before first grade, the majority of whom were still 4-year-olds when the school year began.
Ann Arbor Public Schools, for example, had 17 percent of its students take a second year of kindergarten last year, with student foundation allowance for those children totaling slightly more than $2 million.
Craig Thiel, research director at Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit public research organization, said there is a “big incentive” for schools to pursue an extra year of student foundation allowance by “growing my enrollment and getting my money for these young 5s.”
Haines played down the financial incentives of two-year kindergarten programs in West Michigan’s Ottawa County school districts, saying “they’re not the money-makers you’d think.” Livingston’s LaRosa disagreed, calling the classes a “cash cow” for school districts.
Competition for students
Individual school districts decide whether to encourage two years of kindergarten. That can lead to massive variations across the state, from 50 percent of kindergartners taking a second year in tiny North Central Area Schools in Hermansville in the Upper Peninsula, to more than 500 school districts and charters that didn’t report any kindergarten retention to the Michigan Department of Education last year.
On the west side of the state, one in four kindergarten children in Ottawa County school districts were in their second year of kindergarten in 2018-19. Meanwhile, in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, where 82 percent of students are African American and 86 percent are economically disadvantaged, the rate of kindergarteners in their second year was only 2.8 percent.
Livingston’s LaRosa said the growth in developmental kindergarten classes was a topic of frustration at a recent meeting of early childhood leaders in Lansing, where school officials voiced concerns that two-year kindergarten programs were springing up disproportionately in suburban districts.
Statewide, white students (14 percent) were twice as likely to have two years of kindergarten before first grade as black students (7 percent) in 2018-19.
That difference may be explained by low- and moderate-income students being eligible for separate, publicly-funded preschool programs including federal Head Start and Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program. In effect, the trend toward two-year kindergarten may simply reflect middle-class families creating their own state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds.
When 4-year-old enrollment in Great Start, Head Start and a blend of those income-based preschool programs are added to 4-year-olds in kindergarten, Michigan has 60,000 4-year-olds in publicly-funded education -— that’s 64 percent of the way toward the universal pre-K that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer advocated in her gubernatorial campaign, but which has gained no traction in the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature.
Still, several education officials told Bridge they were concerned that two-year kindergarten programs were not available equally across the state.
“It’s inequitably distributed,” said Livingston County early childhood official LaRosa. “The higher socioeconomic, well-educated people are advocating for this. So what it creates is (an environment where) districts...don’t philosophically buy into developmental kindergarten but they’re pushed into it because of competition … because you’re kissing money goodbye.”
Does it improve learning? Nobody knows
Despite spending $128 million on two-year kindergarten last year, the state has no idea if it helps, harms or has no impact on academic achievement.
Lower, of MDE, said the state hasn’t compiled data comparing the later test scores of students who had two years of kindergarten versus those with one year.
On the other hand, the state has seen gains from the state-funded preschool Great Start Readiness Program. Students who enrolled in GSRP as 4-year-olds scored higher when they reached third grade on Michigan’s standardized test, the M-STEP, in both English language arts and math than their demographically-similar classmates who didn’t enroll in GSRP.
GSRP offers free, full-day preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.
The question that has not been answered yet is whether Michigan’s slightly more expensive two-year kindergarten program has the same positive impact.
The state pays $7,250 per year per student for full-day GSRP. Full-day developmental kindergarten is reimbursed at a minimum rate of $8,111 per year.
A Stanford study found that holding children back for a second year in kindergarten may have a positive impact on academic achievement for a few years, but the impact fades by third grade.
Not all states keep tabs on how many children take two years of kindergarten (Massachusetts, Minnesota and Ohio, for example, do not). In Indiana, the rate is 4 percent — a third of Michigan’s rate.
Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said he has doubts about the positive academic impact of two years of kindergarten.
“Everything I know suggests that retention does little good and may harm, at least in the long-run, and delayed entry (having children enter first grade at an older age) is of no value — though there may be some places and times in which this is not the case,” Barnett said.
Barnett suggested Michigan compare the $128 million spent on two-year kindergarten to “spending the same amount or less money on one-to-one tutoring during the school year or summer to help children keep up rather than repeating an entire year. The answer to that is clear — this would be a much more effective and economically efficient policy.”
Not on Lansing’s radar
There’s no state policy defining developmental kindergarten, and no mention of it in the state school aid budget.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office declined comment for this article. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, chair of the K-12 and Michigan Department of Education committee, did not respond to an email request for comment and Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, minority vice chair of the education and career readiness committee and a former teacher, said developmental kindergarten is not an issue in the legislature.
And the state’s education department?
“It is fair to say MDE is aware of the increase in developmental kindergarten classes in which students are presumed to take two years of schooling before advancing to first grade,” said MDE’s Lower. “But the decision to offer DK is up to individual districts, and MDE doesn’t currently take a position on local district choice.”
Ferndale parent Spicuzzi does take a position: For her daughter, two years of kindergarten “was invaluable. We’d definitely do it again.”
Why should the state pay for an extra year of schooling for children like her daughter, Spicuzzi is asked. “I’d flip that,” Spicuzzi said. “It should be the state’s responsibility to start education younger.
“The younger the better.”
Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this story
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