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The Bridge to Kindergarten

Transitional-K Programs Geared to Give the Younger Set an Early Education Boost

     A posting on the Berkeley Parents Network by a mother named Sarah in March underscored a common dilemma faced by many parents of children born in the fall. The headline: “Looking for a pre-K or bridge-K in Oakland.”
     Here is what she posted: ”I’m looking for a school for my daughter whose birthday is in early September. Not sure when she’ll be ready for kindergarten, so would like some flexibility in curriculum and approach. … Focus on social/emotional development rather than pure academics is very important to me … Tuition must be reasonable. I definitely can’t afford the top-dollar places. Thanks in advance for your help!!”
     Now, the California public school system has an option for Sarah and the thousands of parents who are concerned their nearly-5-year-old children might not be ready for kindergarten. This fall, more than 40,000 students statewide took part in California’s first new grade in more than 120 years: transitional kindergarten. Signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, the Kindergarten Readiness Act was designed to prepare “young 5s” — children whose fifth birthday falls between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2 — for a successful start to their scholastic careers.
     For years, early childhood education advocates have been lobbying for a universal system. It seems they’ve gotten their wish with the creation of transitional kindergarten.
     “California has finally caught up to where the rest of the country is,” says Deb Kong, communications director for www.PreschoolCalifornia.org, a nonprofit advocacy group and staunch supporter of the state’s Kindergarten Readiness Act. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved — children, families, schools, communities.”
     Formerly, if a child turned 5 years old by Dec. 2, he or she was eligible to enroll in kindergarten at a public school. That meant countless 4-year-olds were sprinkled into classrooms throughout California in the fall.
But these younger children, some education experts believe, are often at risk for struggling academically and socially — hardly an ideal start for any child. Interacting with peers, being able to follow a structured setting or mastering some of the curriculum can be a tall order for many not-quite 5s.
     “Some children who have fall birthdays — they’re immature,” says Laura Reno, a teacher at the Livermore Laboratory Employee Services Association Children’s Center in Livermore. Reno, who is also an early childhood development adjunct faculty member at Las Positas College, says, “Their development isn’t ready for the kindergarten experience. Many states have recognized that. It’s for the children. If they’re not ready, they shouldn’t be forced into a situation that doesn’t benefit them.”
     California’s new law catches up the state with what has become the standard around the nation. According to the Education Commission of the United States, 24 of the 50 United States require students to be 5 years old by Sept. 1 or sooner to enter kindergarten.   California and Michigan, which passed a similar law this summer, will eventually push that total to 26 states. Seven other states require the 5th birthday by Sept. 30 for kindergarten admission.
     This fall, the entry eligibility date for California kindergarten students was moved to Nov. 1. Next fall, it will be moved to Oct. 1. By the start of the 2014–15 school year, all kindergartners will be 5 years old, because every kindergartener must turn 5 by Sept. 1 fifth-birthday kindergarten-eligibility date. That will mean about 125,000 students who are 4 years old in Sept. 2014 will be no longer eligible for kindergarten.
     Many early childhood education professionals for years have longed for some sort of universal way to handle preschool and kindergarten ages. In several ways, the Kindergarten Readiness Act addresses that longing. Previous bills seeking to change the entry date of California kindergartners failed, because they left so many students out in the cold — or, in other words, would have kept them in preschool rather than advancing them to kindergarten. The Kindergarten Readiness Act succeeded, however, because with the change in kindergarten admission entry date comes a requirement that school districts create a transitional kindergarten program for the children who are then too young for kindergarten. For those 4-year-olds who are being squeezed out, school districts now must offer a program catered to preparing these so-called “young 5s” for the traditional kindergarten classroom. Think of it as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten — which is why it is referred to as bridge kindergarten or transitional kindergarten. In essence, it is a new grade, a precursor kindergarten for those with fall birthdays. And unlike private companies that offer such programs, transitional-K is free.
     The transitional-K program will begin statewide in 2014-15, is specifically geared i toward those pupils whose birthdays fall between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2. The new transitional-K program is based on California’s kindergarten standards, which mandate that credentialed teachers do the transitional-K teaching.
     “These children are going to be better prepared to succeed. Parents will have another option for their kids. And the schools will benefit, because the students will have the foundation they need to thrive as they matriculate,” Kong says.
It may sound silly on the surface: Is there really that big a difference between a child who is 4 years and 10 months old and a child who is 5 years and 3 months old? But if you talk to an early childhood education professional, he or she will probably consider the question not so silly.
     Of course there is a difference. Of course a five-month developmental advantage is significant in a kindergarten classroom.
     “[Transitional-K] takes those children who need that extra time and provides a learning experience that really caters to those needs, and the other kindergarten classes are able to move at that pace and prepare for first grade,” Angela Kriesler, a kindergarten teacher at Loma Verde Elementary in Novato, says in an interview with the Marin Independence Journal.
     Several school districts have gone to noticeable lengths to make sure transitional-K isn’t just a duplication of kindergarten. The goal is to develop the areas that hinder young 5s from thriving in a modern kindergarten setting. There will be less emphasis on academic matters. The good programs will teach these 4-year-olds how to listen and follow directions and how to interact with their peers.
     Even the children who can grasp the academic part can struggle in kindergarten, because they don’t have the necessary social skills or adequate emotional development for success in kindergarten. This can disrupt the rest of the students, and it can also get the young 5 off to a bad start. Meanwhile, studies have long emphasized the importance of the first five years in a child’s life, and proponents of transitional-K contend this is exactly the reason California can no longer dismiss the disadvantages young 5s face when they’re thrown into the mix with the traditional-age — and older — kindergarteners.
       Addressing this need was so important that the San Ramon Valley and Oakland school districts went ahead with their transitional kindergarten programs this year, despite the funding concerns that arose with Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget cuts in January 2012. They set up programs to handle children with birthdays between Nov. 1 and Dec. 2 (or whose parents ask for transitional-K for their children).
“It is in the best interest of our students and our district to offer the program,” says Christine Williams, assistant superintendent of educational services in the San Ramon school district.
      Even while many don’t quite understand the purpose of — nor the financial ramifications of — transitional-K programs, there’s demand for them in the Bay Area. When San Francisco Unified School District officials announced they were cancelling the transitional-K program amid funding concerns this year, they were inundated with complaints and requests to move forward with the plans (which SFUSD eventually did).
      Officials at the Oakland Unified School District, which ran a pilot transitional-K program in 2011 at one school, report full enrollment at the district’s 10 transitional-K locations this year, and OUSD is preparing to double the program for the 2013–14 school year. Yvonne Delbanco, director of the district’s transitional-K program, says parents are definitely on board.
     “Transitional kindergarten for everyone is a paradigm shift,” Delbanco says. “When some parents hear it, they think, ‘Two years of kindergarten? That’s kind of strange.’ They ask, ‘Are you holding my kid back?’ And frankly, it can be confusing — the law itself and all the budget stuff. But there has been a shift in feelings over time. The parents who participate are huge proponents. Universally, [transitional-K] is just a recognized opportunity for kids. It is definitely wanted.”
Does this solve the young 5s conundrum? Only time will tell. And it’s going to take execution by these school districts.
      On paper, funding shouldn’t be a concern, proponents argue. Schools get the same amount of funding, because they keep the same number of students. And schools theoretically also don’t need more teachers, as one of the kindergarten teachers can instead teach the transitional-K class. But with California in such a financial crisis, it’s naive to think funding won’t be an issue for these to-be-developed transitional-K programs. Whether budget cuts simply deprive schools of anticipated regular funding or if non-factored costs for transitional-K begin to arise — training kindergarten teachers to handle these preschool kids or providing transitional-K classrooms with the necessary materials as well as space — remains to be seen.
Many schools across the state are holding both the kindergarten and transitional-K classrooms in the same room. Will that work over the long haul? It’s unclear for now.
     No matter the obstacles, though, proponents say transitional-K was a necessary step, even if it costs up front.
     “The return on early investment in education is substantial,” Deborah Stipek, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, wrote in an opinion piece in the San Jose Mercury News in January. “The cost is paid back many times over in reduced grade retentions, special education services and lower expenditures for incarceration. Returns also come in the form of the increased productivity that results from higher levels of academic achievement. What’s more, transitional kindergarten produces jobs for teachers and local demands on goods and services, and it gives parents who cannot afford other forms of child care an opportunity to work.”

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