Graduation: Pomp And Training Pants Preschool Commencement? You Can Bet Your Little Miss Muffet Mortarboard On It.

Posted: June 12, 1994

They march in to "76 Trombones" and march out to "Pomp and Circumstance," in between singing and performing a play about the life of the school's founder. A 12-page program allows parents to follow the hour-and-a- half ceremony, which runs until 8:30 p.m.

And those members of the Class of '94 who can stay up that late get to take home certificates and trophies, and they can keep their tassels.

To hang on their tricycles.

Most of the 15 graduating pupils at the Ted DiRenzo Montessori School in Collingdale on Tuesday night will be kindergartners.

If your eyes moisten at the first notes of "Pomp and Circumstance," this is the rainy season around Philadelphia: A rites-of-passage fan could drop in on local graduations for graduate school, college, high school, middle school, elementary school, kindergarten, nursery school and preschool.

There's a growth industry here built on tiny accomplishments.

On Friday night, you had a couple choice ceremonies for the very small. At the Kinderschool in Prospect Park, 53 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds paraded around an auditorium in T-shirts and mortarboards - girls in black, boys in white. At the Philadelphia Christian Academy in West Philadelphia, they went all out: 70 preschoolers marching to the stage in white caps and gowns to collect their diplomas.

There's a tradition around Philadelphia not to let an occasion for an occasion slip by without notice, but it seemed to explode during the '80s with bigger ceremonies and bigger celebrations.

Since then, in private schools particularly, the hoopla has crept slowly down to embrace the littlest achievers, who now get ceremonies modeled after those once reserved for those graduating high school.

"When I went to school, there was no demand for middle-school or kindergarten (caps and gowns), but today, it's an added incentive," said Jack Silverman, owner of Lynn Robe Co. of Philadelphia, who sells gowns as tiny as 30 inches long.

His company also sells mini-mortarboards and tassels and diplomas decorated with Three Blind Mice, Little Miss Muffet and Humpty Dumpty. Blank space is left for the child who "has satisfactorily completed our course of instruction and now continues on a lifetime of learning."

Baby gowns are big for the Philadelphia Church Supply Co., which just placed 54 with the Philadelphia Christian Academy.

Why are school directors stooping so low to confer these honors?

Jim Squadrito, who owns Kinderschools, said he cooked up the idea of a formal ceremony for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds in 1978 because he wanted to stem the sense of loss.

"You felt a part of you was going," he said. "It was always sad for me. You'd been with them for a whole year. It was just to do something special for them, because a lot of them you wouldn't see again."

The ceremonies are anything but stuffy, he said. Upon taking the stage to pick up their diplomas, students often break into song and dance.

"You never know what is going to happen," he said. "I've always said I'd like to have the tissue concession. People are either crying because it's so cute or they're crying because they're laughing so hard."

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Ann Adalist-Estrin, a child-and-family therapist and the director of Parent Resource Center in Wyncote, calls such ceremonies cute - and wrong.

"I've seen lots of graduations from nursery school and graduations from elementary school. I think that is developmentally inappropriate. Not because it harms them, but it sets up an expectation that they are performing at an older level. And I think it is symbolic of something bigger:

"We're expecting too much of kids too soon. We keep wanting to hurry everybody up."

While these events are usually well-meaning, and are designed to raise children's self-esteem and please the parents, she worries about the push to make children feel bigger and wiser. "My argument to that is let them feel wise and competent at being 3 or 4 or 10."

Her idea of an appropriate graduation for preschoolers?

"If they sang a couple songs they learned, showed their parents their artwork, had some cookies and then went home."

It wasn't so long ago that the vast majority of Americans' only graduation was from high school. In the period before World War II, "this was it for people, a coming of age," said Justin Aronfreed, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"People were entering the world of occupation, marriage. People marched down the aisle, and we could celebrate something about their rite de passage, a transformation and change, and they could understand what it meant. It meant that they had mastered a certain body of work."

Now, an "entitlement mentality" has taken over, Aronfreed says. And he sees something as innocent as a preschool graduation as evidence of a

weakening of society.

"It is cheapening the meaning of standards," he said. "It is living in an illusory world, where you pretend all children are doing well - and above all, you are pretending they are all equally educable. That is a pretense. They can't all do equally well."

This proliferation of ceremonies encourages the sense that "everything is fine and that you shouldn't push too far, demand high standards and accomplishments because you don't want them to feel inadequate," he said. ''That the most important thing is self-esteem, no matter whether it is deserved or not. That you have to encourage self-esteem, even if it is based on an illusion."

Vivian Seltzer isn't as worried about the trend. "In my book, it's not necessary, but it's not evil. It's not at all necessary, in fact," said the professor of human development and behavior at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work. "Maybe sometimes in our society, we give credit a little too soon, and we don't really hang in there long enough to get the kind of product that really merits congratulations."

In the past, the Montessori Children's House of Valley Forge followed parents' wishes for something "quite formal and fancy" and went the cap-and- gown route, said administrator Gillian Gutteridge. But this year, it has opted for a program for its graduating kindergartners that emphasizes community service. Tomorrow, during a half-hour daytime ceremony, the 10 graduates will sing songs and talk about what they want to be when they grow up.

The caps and gowns "are a little ridiculous for leaving kindergarten," Gutteridge said.

"I think it is like a lot of other things," said one Montgomery County nursery-school director. "It then takes away a little bit from the accomplishments as you get older. High school graduation, I think, is more important than preschool, for some strange reason."

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