4-year-old students enroll in new ‘transitional kindergarten’ grade

08.21.2012 | Inland Valley Bulletin | Beau Yarbrough

Kathy McDonald sat on the table by one wall of her Porter Elementary School classroom in Fontana, with 23 little faces looking up to her as she sang.

“Seven days in the week, you see, now we balance quietly,” she sang along with her charges.

The 4-year-olds raised their hands and twirled slowly in place before balancing on one foot.

In previous school years, McDonald’s students, all of whom were born in November or early December 2008, would have been mixed into kindergarten classes with older children, many of whom are physically, mentally or emotionally more mature.

But for the first time this year, California’s youngest students are in a grade all their own: transitional kindergarten.

The new grade was created by the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010. The new law will gradually push the date kindergartners must be born before in order to start kindergarten in a given year back from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. This year, the class includes students born between Nov. 1 and Dec. 2.

McDonald, who has taught kindergarten for 19 years, is a fan of the program.

“I’m a firm believer that we don’t give kids enough time,” she said. “If they don’t get the skills they need (in kindergarten), they never catch up.”

Kindergarten has come a long way from the days of Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” essays: All grades, all the way down to the kindergarten level, have had increasingly tough standards placed on them.

“Those are young 4-year-olds, and parents have really been positive about allowing them to develop through a two-year kindergarten process,” said Eric Vreeman, director of child welfare, attendance and accountability for the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School. His district has also been open to moving even children whose birthdays qualify them for standard kindergarten down to the transitional kindergarten class, where they’ll get an extra year to develop before taking on more academic rigor.

At the kindergarten class next door to McDonald’s classroom, noticeably larger and more mature 5-year-olds are discussing vowels and practicing their penmanship, a mere three weeks into the new school year at Fontana Unified.

“As our regular kindergarten class has become more rigorous, more academic, it’s come at the cost of some of the social skills,” said Nanette Hall, senior director of elementary educational for Bonita Unified School District. “We had 4-year-olds (in kindergarten), and historically, they have struggled in a lot of cases.”

School districts have built their transitional kindergarten, or “TK,” classes from scratch, typically merging elements from their preschool and kindergarten programs.

“It came about very quickly, so there really has been very little guidance from the state,” said Jason B. Angle, director of elementary instruction for Fontana Unified.

“Every other grade, including preschool, has a lot of state standards attached. … Many school districts have been kind of left on their own to navigate these uncharted waters as far as what a TK program looks like.”

In McDonald’s class, the kindergarten curriculum takes a back seat to working on developmental skills, like conflict resolution, sharing and listening.

“I hope this lasts long enough that we can see the effects,” she said.

She has reason to be concerned: In the spring, the transitional kindergarten, or “TK” program, was one of the programs Gov. Jerry Brown sought to cut to help balance California’s budget. The program ended up being saved, but Brown had estimated cutting the program would have saved an estimated $224 million in the 2012-2013 year and $672 million a year by 2014-15, when the new minimum birth date rule kicks in.

McDonald’s TK students will either move on to first grade next year, or regular kindergarten, after a conference between their teachers and parents.

But she has no doubt that getting a year with peers at their same developmental level is going to be a huge benefit to the TK students she teaches each day.

“When they walk in next year, they are going to own the place,” she said.

Reach Beau via email, call him at 909-386-3826, or find him on Twitter @InlandEd.

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