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Mandatory kindergarten will help prepare Buffalo’s children to succeed

Among the bills that sailed through the legislative flurry in Albany last week, perhaps none is as critical to the future of the City of Buffalo as the one requiring all 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten.

No longer will Buffalo parents have the option of keeping their children at home or sending them to day care or Head Start programs. Beginning this fall, 5-year-olds will be required to be in formal, full-day kindergarten.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, sponsored the bill. The governor is expected to sign it.

It may be a cliché to say that children are our future, but it happens to be true. This is especially true in a city that is just starting to show remarkable signs of growth, promise and jobs in science, medicine and technology.

Capturing the attention of businesses able to locate and remain in Western New York requires a strong educational system creating a ready workforce. The earlier children start their educations, the better everyone will be.

Without kindergarten, some students are entering first grade without the social skills and basic knowledge needed to succeed. They start out behind other students, and may never catch up.

Interim Buffalo School Superintendent Will Keresztes said that the legislation would increase kindergarten enrollment by 10 to 30 percent, potentially adding as many as 600 students. He also believes that compulsory kindergarten will increase interest by parents in sending their children to prekindergarten programs when they are 4. The district, he added, will now be “assertively pursuing” pre-k money from the state, which enacted a sharp expansion of prekindergarten classes.

This emphasis on early education is creating momentum in the right direction.

Studies have shown that early education gives students an advantage later in their educational careers and, thus, in life. Unfortunately, not every child gets that vital early start in school. When kindergarten is optional, we have seen that parents don’t value it as highly as mandatory education. For parents who do send their children to kindergarten, it’s often an afterthought. Keresztes said that 48 percent of kindergartners this year missed as much as 20 percent of the school year. That clearly is unacceptable, and the new law should greatly improve attendance.

It is never too early to create the critical educational and social building blocks children need. Advocates point to the effect that early learning has on improving high school graduation rates.

School Board member John Licata, who has provided much of the push for mandatory kindergarten, had it absolutely right when he talked about the importance of front-loading education “when children are young, curious and engaged.”

Buffalo’s education system has been deeply flawed for years, and improvement will require many small steps on many fronts. Getting 5-year-olds in school to begin their educations is one of those steps that must be made if Buffalo is to have a bright future.