Budget Cuts Threaten Transitional Kindergarten

04.11.2012 | The Cailfornia Report | Ana Tintocalis

About a dozen kids buzz around a colorful classroom at Walteria Elementary in Torrance, just north of Long Beach. Some kids are stacking Legos and playing with dolls. Others are at tables with jumbo crayons.

At the center of the action is teacher Lisa Rodeski.

“In my classroom, when they first come in in the morning, this is what I call table time, so everything out on the tables is focused on small motor development or it’s math skills,” Rodeski says.

But this is not your typical kindergarten class. It’s called “Preppy K,” a transitional kindergarten program for kids just shy of their fifth birthdays. Rodeski says these kids are not quite ready for the structure of regular kindergarten.

“They stand out in a number of ways,” she says. “It might be academic, it might be physical, it might be social, it might be emotional or it might be a combination of all of those things. So this program has been developed to meet all of their needs.”

The program here has been around for about 20 years. The district makes a commitment to fund it because they see the benefits.

But now this kind of class could take root in every public school across California. A new state law called the Kindergarten Readiness Act requires school districts to begin offering this program with funding from the state. Children who turn five years old between November and December this year are eligible.

Educators say the extra time is needed because kindergarten is tough work these days.

Talia Feliz, 5, was in Torrance’s Preppy K program last year.

“Preppy is more easy, and kindergarten is a little more hard,” she says. “And you get homework in kindergarten.”

Today, 5-year-old students are also expected to read, write, add and subtract.

The change has come over the last several years as state academic standards in elementary and high school put more pressure on the early grades.

State Senator Joe Simitian says transitional kindergarten is necessary to prepare all kids. He authored the bill that created the program.

“We’re talking about reducing the number of kids who are held back, reducing the number of kids who need remedial help, reducing the number of kids who are inappropriately — and quite expensively — in special education programs,” Simitian says. “If we can do all that without any additional costs … who on earth would want to rain on that parade?”

There is one person — Governor Jerry Brown. He says there are additional costs to adding another year of kindergarten, such as extra classroom space, new teachers and classroom materials. That’s why in January,

Brown proposed cutting funding for the program. He says California would save up to $150 million.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office supports his proposal. Rachel Ehlers tracks early education policies at the office.

“Given the state’s fiscal condition, it’s not the time to begin a new program,” Ehlers says. “School districts are cutting back on their existing K-12 programs, increasing class sizes, shortening the school year. So offering a 14th year of public education to a limited pool of children doesn’t make sense.”

Instead, the LAO recommends the state pump more money into state preschool programs to cover those kids.

The political back and forth is wreaking havoc on districts as they try to finalize their own budgets. But about 100 are taking a risk and forging ahead.

Los Angeles Transitional Kindergarten Experiment

Ana Quintanilla is a transitional kindergarten teacher at Kingsley Elementary in Los Angeles.

L.A. was the first large urban school district to experiment with the program before the state law went into effect this year.

Quintanilla says almost all of her students come from poor, Spanish-speaking families. She says many of them have never set foot in a classroom.

“I’ve had over the years kids who come in with no experiences with pencil, crayons, paper,” Quintanilla says. “It’s like a scissor is something foreign to them. They look at it as though it’s something strange. That breaks my heart.”

And that, she says, is where the state’s achievement gap begins.

But supporters say transitional kindergarten is not just for struggling students and families. At an average cost of $7,000 a year for private preschools, they say middle-class families finally have another option.

San Francisco Backlash

Cressant Hurley-Bell picks up her four-year-old daughter from a preschool in San Francisco. The district subsidized her tuition this year because Hurly-Bell’s husband was laid off.

Now he has a new job, which means no more free preschool. The couple was planning to send their daughter to a transitional kindergarten program next year to avoid any costs, but district officials cancelled the program at the last minute due to budget uncertainties.

The family will have to come up with money to pay for another year preschool.

“We would have to. I just can’t imagine her not going to school, you know, and lose that momentum,” she says.

The move caused such a backlash in San Francisco that the district will now offer classes at two campuses. But parents say those campuses can’t accommodate the 400 families who are eligible for the program.

So far, transitional kindergarten supporters have won the political backing from the state Assembly, which voted last month to reject the Governor’s proposal to strip funding.

This week, the budget question heads to the state’s Senate Education Budget committee. But the final decision may come too late for some parents who’ve had to scramble to find a back-up plan.

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