My first child, Luna, who turns 6 this October, was still a baby when friends and family started asking the question: What are you going to do about school?
Before long, I learned the significance of Luna's fall birthday. She was an "October baby," which translates loosely to, "Hoo boy, you just missed that school cutoff date." In Glover, where we've lived since 2011, our school district — like most in Vermont — says that a child must be 5 years old by September 1 of the year they start kindergarten.
When Luna was little, we told ourselves that there must be some leeway on that date. Whenever I told another parent, they would cast me a doubtful look and tell me about so-and-so's kid who was born on September 2 at 12:01 a.m. and still had to wait.
As our daughter's personality emerged, our resolve solidified. By 3 years old, Luna was a precocious firecracker. She knew all her letters, could do simple math and had an exacting vocabulary.
Since she missed the cutoff date for public preschool, we signed her up for a couple mornings a week at a private school 25 minutes away.
"Preschool is boring," she would sometimes say. "There isn't any real work. It's more like a daycare."
Then I learned from family in New Jersey that my niece, born two months before Luna, would start kindergarten right after she turned 5. "Luna too, right?" they asked.
They are basically the same age, I would explain, but they are on either side of the cutoff date.
"That's such a shame," was the typical reply.
I agreed. I had assumed all along that the girls would be in the same grade. I even pictured them traveling together after high school. But Luna would be a year behind.
When she was in her second year of preschool, I started trying to convince our local school board to let Luna start kindergarten early. I learned that the Vermont Agency of Education states that the cutoff date must be between August 31 and January 1, leaving the exact date up to school districts. I reasoned there must be some process for early admittance.
It turns out that, in our school district, there isn't. So I found myself trying to lay the groundwork. I called up a family I'd heard had their child admitted early several years ago, and learned that they'd had to have her assessed by an out-of-district teacher, and that she was still doing very well. But the administrators involved in that case were long gone. At several school board meetings, I shared research on the benefits of being the youngest in the class. But my local school board insisted that the cutoff date is chosen by the supervisory union and there was nothing they could do.
Around this time, I was at a kid's birthday party, giving my kindergarten spiel, when another mother tuned in. She couldn't believe I was trying to enroll my child early. She talked about research showing that kids do better in kindergarten as 6-year-olds. Another mother said she planned on holding back her own child, who cleared the school cutoff date by several months, because she wanted her kid to be ready for the challenges of kindergarten.
I felt mom-shamed, like I was trying to shove my preschooler out of the nest and into the big, bad world too early.
Still, I persisted, and soon uncovered a key fact from the chair of the supervisory union board: that it was actually up to individual schools to decide their own rules on early entrance. The next step would have been to return to the Glover School Board with this game-changing information. But I didn't. Uncertainty had been growing inside me for a while.
I had shared our story so many times that I couldn't help but pick apart my own argument. My only real concern was that Luna might be bored with another year of preschool. But what about the flip side? That she might be much smaller than her classmates. That she would miss the chance to mature socially and emotionally before mixing with kids in older grades. That she would miss out on time to play and explore.
At this point, I had far less conviction than when the whole thing started. The safest thing to do, it seemed, was to wait.
Now that my daughter has completed her final year of preschool, I have real information rather than theories. Luna was not bored at school. Her teacher tailored activities to her abilities, like having her write words with lowercase letters instead of all capitals. Luna took part in a smaller, weekly enrichment class where she got to write and illustrate her own storybook. "I taught a ballet class today," she said at pick-up one day.
Her social skills also improved. Luna began that last year as the kind of kid who likes to chat up the adults in the room. She evolved into more of a kid's kid, the kind who knows when to play it cool even though somebody snatched your toy, and when it's a good idea to tell an adult.
When we visited her new kindergarten classroom at the end of last year, we learned that another oft-repeated tale — that kindergarten is the new first grade — is just not true, at least in Glover. Not only is there no homework, there aren't even desks. But I doubt Luna will be bored. The teacher plays guitar, leads the kids in songs about spelling, and seems to have a Maria von Trapp-esque approach to guiding students through the day.
The other day, Luna said she's so excited for kindergarten this year. And I feel confident about it, too.
Right after this school year starts, my younger daughter will turn 3. In a couple years, she'll miss the kindergarten cutoff date by less than a week. But this time around, I won't sweat it. School can wait.