ST. PAUL — At 4, Hamdi Mohamoud’s son, Imran, was potty-trained and obedient and knew the alphabet, shape names and simple math.

“I felt like he was excelling,” his mother said.

A teacher’s assessment at Higher Ground Academy confirmed her hopes: He was ready to start kindergarten, four months before his fifth birthday.

“She tested him and said he’s great. I said, ‘I know, right?’ ” Mohamoud said after a kindergarten graduation ceremony last month. “You don’t understand how proud I am.”

At Imran’s St. Paul charter school, there’s nothing exceptional about his tender age. Out of 70 kindergartners enrolled at Higher Ground this year, 39 started at age 4.

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Experts say an early start to formal schooling can be appropriate for high-achievers, but some worry that schools are abusing the system and inflicting lasting harm on Minnesota’s youngest students.

The state sets admission guidelines but it’s up to each school to decide who they think is ready for kindergarten. The result has been vast disparities by race and school type.

Minnesota Department of Education statewide data from this year shows:

  • Charter schools enrolled 18 times as many early-admission students as traditional district schools on a per-student basis.
  • Compared with white students, Asian-American students were seven times as likely to start kindergarten early, at age 4.
  • Black students were 10 times as likely as whites to start kindergarten at age 4.
  • White students were seven times as likely as Asian-Americans to start kindergarten late, at age 6 or 7.
  • White students were four times as likely as black students to start kindergarten late.

Annie Mason, program director of elementary-teacher education at the University of Minnesota, said the early-admission data seem to reflect “intense pressure” for immigrant and refugee families to “conform to U.S. school norms,” such as following rules and reading at an early age.

“My concern is for the loss of opportunity to experience their early childhood as it was meant to be experienced, which is through play, through exploration, less structured time,” she said.

Minnesota's low bar

Only nine states have a law that explicitly allows schools to enroll a child in kindergarten several months before their fifth birthday, and Minnesota’s law is among the most permissive, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Schools here can enroll children as much as a full year younger than the Sept. 1 cutoff date; only Colorado allows even younger students.

And Minnesota’s standard for early admission is relatively low. The statute says candidates must be tested to ensure they can “meet kindergarten grade expectations” and stay on track to start first grade the following year.

By contrast, the Colorado Department of Education says early access is meant for “only a few highly advanced gifted children.” North Carolina requires early-admitted students to score in the 98th percentile in intelligence and in reading or math.

Still, Minnesota has strong guidelines for early admission, said Susan Assouline, director of the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

Schools are expected to interview parents, administer a “comprehensive evaluation in cognitive, social and emotional developmental domains,” and have a teacher observe “the child’s knowledge, skills and abilities.”

“If they’ve made the decision based on that process,” Assouline said, “then they should be in good shape.”

Enrollment padding?

Nicholas Hartlep, associate professor of urban education at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, suspects charter schools are admitting underprepared 4-year-olds in order to get more state revenue.

“I think it is an enrollment issue. They’re just padding their enrollment,” he said.

As for the required screening process, Hartlep said, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Higher Ground’s executive director Samuel Yigzaw said his high number of 4-year-old kindergartners has nothing to do with revenue. With a long waiting list, his school has no problem filling seats.

Yigzaw, whose students are almost exclusively Somali-Americans, said parents are driving the trend.

“What I have noticed among the Somalis, there is a very high belief in education,” he said.

Parents compare their children with others, he said, and grade acceleration at kindergarten or later on in school is one marker of success.

“They fight for their children all along. It’s not only kindergarten,” he said.

At College Prep Elementary, another St. Paul charter school, nine of 49 kindergartners started this school year at age 4.

Executive director Dao Lor said the data reflect interest from parents and the school’s belief that “every scholar is unique.”

Lor said his school, too, rejects some 4-year-old applicants. He described the testing process as “very comprehensive.”

Good for the gifted

Assouline calls grade acceleration — either by starting kindergarten early or skipping a grade — “the most effective intervention” for gifted students.

But only about 2% of all students have “really exceptional ability” and are ready for advanced work, Assouline said.

In Minnesota last fall, 398 children — fewer than 1% — started kindergarten at age 4.

At traditional district schools, there were 354 students for every early-admitted child; at charter schools, the ratio was 20 to 1.

The state allows each school to decide which assessment tools they use for early admission, so there is no comparable achievement data readily available.

However, almost every school with a high number of 4-year-old kindergartners performs below average on the state’s standardized math and reading tests in third grade, the first year the tests are administered.

Youth a disadvantage

There are real risks to starting formal school at a young age.

A 2017 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research compared Florida children with September and August birthdays — those who were the youngest and oldest in their classes, respectively. It found that young-for-age students scored worse on standardized tests, were more likely to end up in juvenile detention and less likely to finish college.

It’s far more common for children to “redshirt,” or spend an extra year at home before starting school.

Incidentally, white students, Minnesota’s highest achieving racial group in the public schools, redshirt at much higher rates than their peers.

Statewide this year, 8% of school district kindergartners started at age 6 or 7. That includes:

  • 10% of white kindergartners;
  • 4% of non-white kindergartners; and
  • 6% of charter school kindergartners.

The Minnesota Department of Education has not studied how its early-admitted students have performed over time.

Heather Mueller, the department’s senior director for teaching and learning, said in an email that the state is focused on increasing access to prekindergarten because they “want children to be in settings that are developmentally appropriate.”

“Although age 5 is the recommended age to begin kindergarten, early entrance can be an option for families when appropriate,” she added. “The decision to have a student enter kindergarten early should only be made after thorough review and in partnership between the school and the family.”