27% of Orange kindergartners recommended to repeat year

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-17-2023 5:02 PM

ORANGE — Chronic absenteeism of the district’s youngest pupils has resulted in a higher number of kindergarten students than usual being recommended for retention, according to school administrators.

Superintendent Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski recently shared with Orange Elementary School Committee members that of the 75 students in the current kindergarten class between Fisher Hill Elementary and Dexter Park Innovation schools, the district is recommending 20 be held back for a year, equating to nearly 27% of the class.

“I think there’s always been a question of the need to retain some kids, but … I wouldn’t say it is as high,” Teahan-Zielinski said of this year’s numbers compared to past years. “I think the issue here is chronic absenteeism.”

For these kindergartners, she said, 13 absences — or the baseline threshold for “chronic absenteeism” — was on the lower end of the spectrum, with a majority of the 20 students having between 30 and 40 absences. Asked whether these absences were tied to illness or COVID-19 diagnoses or exposure, Teahan-Zielinski said “there was no set pattern to that nature.”

“Those students … we have our own internal assessments we do when we start testing,” Teahan-Zielinski told Orange Elementary School Committee members at a meeting last week. “That gives you an idea of where your child is progressing ... which gives us an idea of where they’re at in their education.”

She noted that in some cases, students start kindergarten at an age that is “right up against the cut-off date.”

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“They tend sometimes to fall behind because of maturity — academic maturity, physical maturity, emotional maturity,” she explained.

Teahan-Zielinski said a letter recently went out to families of students who were chronically absent and/or not meeting benchmarks, “giving them the opportunity to repeat kindergarten so their child will get those base skills.”

Teahan-Zielinski said parents and guardians are given the opportunity to meet with guidance counselors and to better understand the benchmark skills for students, including the ability to spell their name or understand beginning sounds “so they can be super successful when they’re entering first grade.”

She related the learning gap to the one experienced by students in the second and third grades.

“COVID did a lot,” Teahan-Zielinski said. “If you think about our little ones in grades two and three, they missed out on a lot because of COVID. We know that. You end up with a learning gap. … The older they get, the wider those gaps become because they need those base skills.”

Retention is an opportunity for kids to get the skills they need to progress to the next grade level, she said.

“Every year they don’t get those skills,” she said, “the achievement gap increases.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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