NEW YORK — Four-year-olds in kindergarten could soon be a thing of the past.
As New York City parents push for every possible advantage for their kids, experts see a growing trend of redshirting, in which parents delay sending their children to kindergarten so that they have a leg up on their peers academically, athletically and socially when they finally do enter the mix.
Some of the city's top private schools are encouraging the practice by pushing back their cutoff date from the fall to the summer — requiring that all children starting kindergarten be at least 5 years old.
And while the city's public schools still hold fast to an unusually late Dec. 31 cutoff for kindergarten — which means some kids are just 4 years and 8 months old when they start school — that could soon change as well, thanks to new state legislation that may roll the cutoff date back to Dec. 1.
Pro-redshirting parents who spoke to DNAinfo.com New York said the pressure on students is so high, even at an early age, they want to give their kids as much of an advantage as possible.
"You know New York parents can be crazy," said one Upper East Side mom of 5-year-old twin girls born in November, who requested anonymity. "There’s a lot of pressure on you to make sure your kids are not falling behind. It’s like keeping up with the Joneses, but in New York it’s times 10. And it’s hard not to fall into that."
The woman said she was willing to shell out big bucks — and accept some help from her parents — to send her daughters to private school so that they could start kindergarten a year later than they would have in public school.
"Our girls were very immature for their age," the woman added, "There was no way they would be ready for first grade right now. So, we said let’s just put them in private school and see how long we can go without bankrupting the family."
The girls are now in kindergarten at an Upper West Side private school, and their mom hopes they'll be ready to go to public school once they're in second grade. She's already seen them grow tremendously in terms of dealing with "slightly more than normal social anxiety," she said.
Other parents who redshirted their kids also saw advantages.
"I think it's great for him," said Alissa Nierenberg, 44, whose 6-year-old son Josh was "a little on the smaller side," before he started kindergarten at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School this fall.
She likes that he had an extra year to grow and mature, and hopes starting kindergarten later will give him even more confidence — and she's also pleased that the girls in his class won't "tower over" him as much.
Susan Winthrop, 39, of the Upper West Side, said she's sure she made the right choice when she held back her older son so that he entered kindergarten when he was 6 years old.
"I was very unsure [initially]," said Winthrop, whose son attends Columbia Grammar. "Now, two years later, it's been great for him. [He's] more mature."
Columbia Grammar moved its kindergarten cutoff from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1 several years ago — and some parents said that in practice, the cutoff is actually even earlier, falling in the middle of May.
Barbie Cook, 44, whose daughter is starting second grade at the age of 8, a full year older than some of her peers, agreed that the later start is an advantage.
"It's nice [for children] to have an extra year with their parents," said Cook, an Australian now living in New York. "It makes them more interested [in school]."
While redshirting is not a new practice, experts have seen a growing interest in it recently, perhaps as a result of Malcolm Gladwell's influential 2008 book "Outliers," which argued that children who are older, bigger and more mature than their classmates have an advantage over them.
Across the country, nearly a quarter of some kindergarten classrooms are filled with 6-year-olds, according to a “60 Minutes” segment, which noted that kindergarten redshirting has more than tripled since the 1970s, with boys twice as likely to be held back than girls and wealthy families pursuing the practice more than poorer families.
In the past year alone, Michael McCurdy, co-founder and CEO of TestingMom.com., which helps NYC parents navigate the school testing and admissions process, has seen a 30 percent increase in parents asking about redshirting their children.
"A lot of parents think their kids are not ready to begin kindergarten," said McCurdy, who personally disagrees with redshirting, and tells parents that the DOE does not support the practice. "They think if their kids are older they’ll be a leader, not a follower."
Manhattan Country School, on the Upper East Side, used to accept kindergarteners who turned 5 by Oct. 30 but recently pushed the cutoff back to Sept. 1 so that the incoming students would be more mature, said Lois Gelernt, the school's director of admissions.
The school made the change after noticing that some of the younger kids had a problem sitting still, she said.
Gelernt discourages parents from either starting their children in school early or holding them back a year, but she said she evaluates each family's case individually. To ensure that children are in class with peers in their age range, the school now offers two kindergarten classes: one for 4 and 5-year-olds and one for 5 and 6-year-olds, Gelernt said.
Earlier cutoffs are attractive to parents of children born late in the year who want their kids to be among the oldest, rather than the youngest, in their class.
Even those private schools that don't allow redshirting say they're bombarded by requests to do so.
Many parents seeking to get around public school restrictions look to private schools, which have earlier cutoff dates and often have more flexible redshirting policies.
Pamela Clarke, headmaster at Trevor Day School on the Upper East Side, said she receives many redshirting requests from parents, but the school sticks to its Sept. 1 cutoff.
"We are steadfastly resisting the urge to redshirt these kindergarteners," Clarke said. "Kindergarten is meant to be for 5-year-olds. We have 60 kids. There’s a year span. If you let someone redshirt a kindergartner then you have an 18-to-20-month span. It’s tough on teachers and it’s unfair to the youngest child."
Currently, if parents want their child to attend public kindergarten, then they must enroll their youngster during the year their youngster turns 5, or else they will miss out on the chance for kindergarten altogether and will be forced into first grade the following year, experts said.
With a new mandatory kindergarten law set to take effect in New York in 2013, the DOE’s age cutoff and policies might change — but only by a month.
The law states that children who are 5 years old by Dec. 1 of that year must go to kindergarten, but it remains unclear whether the DOE will have to change its Dec. 31 cutoff, or would change its current practice of putting 6-year-olds who missed kindergarten directly into first grade.
DOE officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
McCurdy, the school admissions adviser, thinks the Department of Education should change its cutoff date to be in sync with private schools, so that parents don't have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to get a perceived advantage.
"There are too many differences with the timeline," he said.
The hope that delaying the school start will give their kids a leg up, however, may be counterproductive, authors Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, wrote in the New York Times.
The authors wrote that by high school redshirted children are less motivated and don’t perform as well as their peers, and they believe that boys, who are slower to mature emotionally, may actually get a boost from being around older children.
Laura Sosinsky, assistant professor in the Applied Developmental Psychology Program at Fordham University, who has also noted a national increase in redshirting, advised parents to consider age as just one of many factors in determining whether a child is ready for kindergarten.
Research on the issue has been mixed, Sosinsky said. While one study found some academic benefits for children who started school at an older age, another study found that children's literacy skills advanced more quickly through attending school, even at a young age.
"Every child is different," Sosinsky said in an email. "The child’s age relative to peers may be part of the choice, but perhaps a modest part in comparison to other factors such as child’s actual behavior and ability and the other aspects of the child’s and family’s experiences."
Denise Cordivano, co-director of the Battery Park City Day Nursery, encourages parents to talk to the schools they’re planning to send their children to, whether public or private, to understand what the age policies are. At some private schools, she said, the cutoff for boys is July 1, rather than Sept. 1.
“Each program knows what they can handle, so you have to trust that,” Cordivano said. “Someone has to be the oldest and someone has to be the youngest.”
She said that in her 16 years of working at the nursery at least one parent a year wants to hold a child back from starting kindergarten.
One Battery Park City mom, who couldn’t afford to put her son into private school, succeeded in getting her local elementary school P.S. 89 to redshirt her child two years ago.
The mother, who requested anonymity, said she held her son back from kindergarten because he was born on Dec. 31, an hour before the cutoff. He was a particularly sensitive child, who often grew frustrated after making a mistake, and his mother felt he could benefit from another year of growth.
The mother assumed the Department of Education would allow her son to start kindergarten the following year instead — but the next year, school officials told her that her son was now too old for kindergarten and would have to go directly to first grade.
After agonizing months of unsuccessful phone calls and emails, the mother started bawling as she dropped her son off at P.S. 89 on the first day of school. Within 20 minutes, the principal found a kindergarten slot for her son, who is now a thriving 7-year-old second-grader, among the oldest kids in his class.
“He did really well in kindergarten and it helped his confidence,” the mother said, adding that she was planning to move out of the city had her son not been put in kindergarten that year.
“I think every parent should have the right to make the decision about when their child starts school if they feel strongly," she said.
With reporting by Ben Fractenberg.