Moriah Lopez has a son who turned 4 in December, which previously would have meant that he would be eligible for kindergarten this fall.

New legislation passed in 2023, however, now requires that kindergarten students be 5 years old by Sept. 1, instead of the previous cutoff of Jan. 1. This change sent Lopez into a spiral for weeks, trying to figure out her next steps.

The mother of two didn’t know why the law changed. She didn’t know if the preschool her son attended would have space for him for another year or if she would need to pay for a year of child care. She worried whether her family could afford child care or if she or her husband would need to quit their job to take care of their youngest child.

She said she struggled to get answers from New Haven Public Schools, where her two sons are enrolled.

“It’s been me trying to navigate everything,” Lopez said. “It’s been a lot of self-research on why this even was passed. The [district] website is just very confusing in general. [Information] possibly could have been on there, but I just couldn’t figure it out.”

Her confusion likely isn’t unique, as more than 9,000 children in Connecticut may be affected by the new age requirement.

Developmental experts, and even Lopez, agree with the change, as Connecticut joins the majority of other states that require kindergartners to be 5.

The problem is how the law is being implemented.

For the upcoming 2024-25 school year, some districts are requiring only a written request from a parent or guardian for the waiver, as they plan to implement an assessment plan by the following year. Others have already set up full-fledged processes to analyze a student’s social and emotional behaviors. Waiver request timelines also vary, with some cutoff dates in February and others accepting requests on a rolling basis well into the summer.

“There are some things that districts are doing in common, but each district is unique in how they are implementing the waiver process … and I think that the way the legislation was written, and why we have that, is [to create a process that is] fitting the context of every community,” said Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

Still, education leaders have voiced concerns about the unfunded mandate, noting that the shift comes at a time when the number of pre-K slots is the lowest it’s been in nearly two decades and it is difficult to open more spaces for pre-K classes that are already at their limits.

“What I worry about, and what has been brought up to me, not necessarily by superintendents, is the whole idea of equity. In the large cities, for example, are all of those parents going to be well-informed on the waiver process and how they can apply for a waiver?” Rabinowitz said. “Are we certain that the children that are not 5 by Sept. 1 are going to continue to receive a preschool experience?”

[As CT kindergarten age changes, worries about transition emerge]

And with every district using different policies and communication methods, some parents, like Lopez, are living Rabinowitz’s worry — struggling with navigating school websites, finding the best resources and receiving the right information.

“While I was frustrated with the lack of communication from [my school district], I get it at the same time. It’s hard for them to navigate and figure it out when they’re responsible for so many different schools and so many different children,” Lopez said. “But what about other families? … I just have a lot of concerns for everyone else.”

report released on Feb. 12 from The Connecticut Project Action Fund, a social policy advocacy group, said only 60% of schools districts had “updated, easily accessible kindergarten entry [policies] online,” as of late January.

In 2022-23, there were over 34,800 kindergartners in Connecticut, and about 41% of those students were enrolled in just 25 school districts across the state.

The Connecticut Mirror contacted several of those districts with the highest kindergarten enrollments to illustrate how vastly requirements differ, how different the approaches are to ease transitions for families and what concerns education leaders across the state.

[CT kindergarten age change: What to know about the new cutoff]

Waivers, timelines

Many districts across the state, like Bridgeport, East Hartford and Norwalk, are embedding waiver requests into their existing online kindergarten registration process. Others — like Hartford, Trumbull, West Hartford, New Haven and Milford — have separate forms or surveys for parents to fill out if they’re applying for early kindergarten.

The assessment process itself is where districts’ approaches start to vary.

Some districts are requiring only a written parental request. Westport and East Hartford districts plan to use this process as a transition and work toward an appropriate assessment by the 2025-26 school year.

Districts like Bridgeport and Trumbull are requesting that parents use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Milestone Checklist during the registration process to determine whether their child is developmentally ready for kindergarten. Similarly, Hartford Public Schools released a 12-question survey, and Fairfield parents will receive the Connecticut Kindergarten Domain Readiness Skills rubric. School staff will review the responses prior to admission.

Stamford, New Britain, Norwalk, West Hartford and Southington are a few of the districts that have established more extensive processes, requiring expert assessments to analyze motor, concept and language skills, and academic, emotional and social needs.

Some districts, like New Haven and Glastonbury, are offering a hybrid-like process of what other districts are doing where, depending on the child’s pre-K experiences or their birthdate, they may have to undergo an assessment or be granted automatic admission.

In New Haven, if a child with a birthday past Sept. 1 is enrolled in the district’s pre-K program, “they will automatically move on to kindergarten,” according to the district website. For students not enrolled in the program with a late birthday, they must undergo an assessment process.

Glastonbury Public Schools’ website says that any student who turns 5 before Oct. 31 will be eligible to start kindergarten this year, and for those born between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, waivers will “rarely [be] granted.”

For parents considering kindergarten waivers, the timeline to request consideration can range from late February through early July, depending on the district.

West Hartford may have one of the earliest cutoffs — written requests were required by Feb. 1.

Hartford and East Hartford have cutoffs on March 1 and May 15, respectively. Stamford, Groton and New Britain have cutoffs in early summer, ranging from June through July. Bridgeport, Trumbull and Norwalk plan to consider requests on a rolling basis.

Most districts said the timeline between requesting a waiver, undergoing an assessment and hearing a decision from school leadership will be about a week.

For districts conducting assessments, many have scheduled appointments — typically on weekends — when children can be evaluated. Some appointment processes opened in the fall, like in Stamford. Other districts like Groton, New Britain and Norwalk will conduct assessments in February through the early spring.

Transition process

Despite differences in the kindergarten enrollment and waiver process, one similarity among districts is the willingness to work with affected families to ease the transition.

For some districts, that’ll be easier than for others.

In Groton, for example, the district has always screened its kindergarten and incoming students. In the late 2010s, Groton Public Schools created a program called “Transitional Kindergarten” after recommendations from several educators. The program targets 4-year-olds with late birthdays and provides a kindergarten-like experience, with before- and after-school programs, bus transportation and lunch, but at a developmentally appropriate level. Children can be recommended to kindergarten or first grade after enrollment in the program, depending on their readiness.

“I am talking to legislators about how can we make this a golden opportunity for our state to educate our littlest learners. I feel like Groton is ahead of the curve … because we are offering a transition-K program,” Superintendent Susan Austin said, adding that other district leaders have been asking about the model and how to replicate it. “I feel like this is an opportunity.”

Fairfield plans to implement a similar program with the launch of a new tuition-based full-day pre-K for students enrolled in the district’s Early Childhood Center.

“Current 4-year-old students impacted by the change in kindergarten legislation will be given priority to attend the full day pre-K program,” said Superintendent Michael Testani.

Rabinowitz is enthusiastic about transitional kindergarten or universal pre-K models but added that the main obstacle boils down to funding.

“There is concern about the ability for all children to have an educational experience. If they’re not ready, or if they’re not old enough for kindergarten, is there going to be room for them in the preschool? And in some cases, the preschools are not run by the school system,” Rabinowitz said. “I have no problem with 5 years old by September. I just wish [the state legislature] had given us a little bit more time to do this. If it had been [implemented by] 2025, I think we could have better had all the ducks in a row for that, and hopefully, more early care funding.”

The report from The Connecticut Project also surveyed district leaders across the state, and with 98 responses from Connecticut superintendents, the majority echoed Rabinowitz’s support of delaying implementation for at least another year and a general agreement toward increased funding for early childhood education subsidies.

Statewide data show that the number of publicly funded slots for infant and toddler care dropped by 3,490 — about 17% — from 2022 to 2023. The state has 49,898 preschool slots, a 4% reduction from 2022 and the lowest number since at least 2005, according to a report released by research and advocacy organization Connecticut Voices for Children earlier this year.

In Connecticut, child care costs on average $18,156 for center-based care and $11,955 in a family child care home annually. This means Connecticut has the third-most expensive early care costs, behind only Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts, the report said.

Many high enrollment districts, often urban centers, are anticipating hundreds of waiver requests, and some district leaders say they plan to approve a majority of the applications.

In Bridgeport, the district currently educates over 1,500 kindergarten students, and about 500 of those children have birthdays between Sept. 2 and Jan. 1.

“We project there are closer to 600 children this new legislation may affect,” spokesperson Lindsay Davis said. “Families have been calling to inquire about being able to enroll their children in kindergarten. We anticipate many families will choose to send their children to kindergarten next year. … The flexibility of kindergarten enrollment will minimize the potential of a financial and scheduling burden for families that were not anticipating another year of pre-K or child care.”

In Hartford, the district educates about 1,200 kindergartners.

“Our School Choice application period only recently opened, so it’s still early to determine kindergarten applications and enrollment for the 2024-25 school year,” spokesperson Julia Skrobak said. “There are currently 279 current pre-K-4 students in our schools with birthdays after Sept. 1. We anticipate the majority of those families will apply for a waiver.”

In New Britain, there’s about 750 kindergarten public school students, said Kristie Bourdoulous, the pre-K-5 academic and accountability officer, adding that about 30% of the district’s kindergartners were born after Sept. 1.

“We do anticipate interest in the waiver, especially in the first year of this new law,” Bourdoulous said. “We heavily marketed changes to admission policy and the process for requesting early enrollment to families with children currently enrolled in our BOE pre-K program and our community partner programs. At this time, we have over 100 families that have responded to our early entry request form with more than 70 students requesting early entry. … Of the students we know about enrolled in BOE or community partners, approximately 90% of those families are requesting early entry. We anticipate many of those requests being approved.”

Representatives from other high-enrollment districts, including Waterbury and New Haven, did not respond to requests for comment.

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika’s experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.