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Some students too young, some too old, Price says

VWSD Superintendent James Price addresses members of the Senate Education Committee Tuesday at the Capitol in Jackson.(Brian Loden The Vicksburg Post)

[9/22/04]JACKSON The age of students when they enter school and when they leave ought to be addressed by the Mississippi Legislature, Superintendent James Price testified Tuesday.

Price, at the helm of the 8,900-student Vicksburg Warren School District for 14 months, wants a one-month change in the date children are enrolled in kindergarten or first grade.

For public kindergarten, which is optional, a child must now be 5 years old on or before Sept. 1. For first grade, the age is 6 by the same date.

Price told members of the Senate Education Committee he wants to change the date to Aug. 1. to ensure that no 4-year-olds are enrolled in kindergarten.

“Teachers are caring more for the personal needs of the younger children rather than their academic needs due to their immaturity,” Price said. “What it amounts to is the range of ability levels is so vast that the teachers are truly overwhelmed and feel they’re not meeting all of the needs of all of the students.”

Public kindergartens were added in Mississippi about 20 years ago when the school years started in September. Attendance was made optional to allow parents to continue using private kindergartens if they wished. Since then, the school years have also started earlier and earlier.

Price said administrators polled kindergarten teachers in the district and all were in favor of changing the law.

And he has the support of the Education Committee chairman, Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg.

“I’m all for it,” the 12-year legislator said. His wife, Mary Chaney, is a former public school teacher.

“Mothers and every kindergarten and first-grade teacher I’ve talked to have all suggested that the law be changed to Aug. 1,” he said. “Changing the date allows children to progress at the same pace as other children in the class, and students will be on the same learning level.”

Price’s second issue was older students. He wants the Legislature to set regulations that will allow educators to move students much older than their grade level into alternative education programs.

Students can remain in public schools until they are 20 years old, but, for example, a 17-year-old student with fewer than five units toward graduation would be a candidate for alternative classes because the student is not likely to graduate in the traditional program. The same would apply to an 18-year-old student with fewer than 10 units and a 19-year-old student with fewer than 15 units.

“There is absolutely no way that any employee of the Vicksburg Warren School District would deny any young person who truly wishes to get a diploma the opportunity to do so,” Price said. “As a matter of fact, we will bend over backwards to do anything within our power to accommodate older students who work hard to reach that goal.

“But those who make a mockery of the education process by showing up when and where they choose and have made it evident that they have no real interest in academic achievement need to be directed to more adult-type programs as an alternative where they can succeed with young people their age.”

Overage students, he said, were also a factor in both high schools Vicksburg High School and Warren Central High School not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, a federal requirement.

Scores of students who took the test were good enough, but the district missed the mark because not enough students took the exams.

“An analysis of our absenteeism thus far this year has shown that 68 percent of the secondary students who have been absent 9 days or more, not including suspensions, are 17- 18- and 19-year-olds who unilaterally pick and choose the days they wish to attend,” Price said. “And after analyzing test results from last year, it’s evident that these are the same students who refuse to take the state-mandated tests and thus cost the high schools achieving AYP.”

Price said the proposal would allow educators to move overage students to alternative programs set up at Grove Street School and assist students in course work at Hinds Community College.

“What we help them with depends,” Price said. “We are willing to work with them as long as that’s truly what they want.”