Six- and seven-year olds still not all in school

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Children in Philadelphia, and throughout Pennsylvania, are not mandated to attend school until they reach age eight – generally the time that children are in or just finished with second grade.

State legislation known as House Bill 377, introduced by State Representative James Roebuck, Jr., of Philadelphia, would lower the age to six in Philadelphia alone. An exemption is included in the legislation for children who are home-schooled. This legislation has already passed Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives and is awaiting action by the Senate Education Committee.

The School District of Philadelphia estimates that the bill would affect approximately 700 students annually, who enter school overage. “They come in, and they’re too old for kindergarten or first grade, and they’re lost from day one,” commented Paul Vallas, CEO, School District of Philadelphia.

According to Donna Piekarski, the head of the District’s Office of Early Childhood Education, a further consequence of children entering school at older ages is that they are at a higher risk of being held back in the future. She added, “They get into a vicious cycle of thinking, ‘Now I’m older than everyone else, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to know.’”

Piekarski maintained that the legislation “will help us with that population of children that we’re now losing in the seventh or eighth grade. Sixteen-year-olds are not going to sit in class with 12-year-olds.”

As Roebuck observed, “The policy of not requiring a child to be enrolled until they are eight years old is a legacy from the days of plowing fields with horse teams and children working in coal mine breaker buildings and textile plants, when every hand was essential on a farm and every income essential to the well-being of an urban working family.”

Pennsylvania is one of only two states that have retained the compulsory age at eight years.