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California creates ‘transitional’ kindergarten to help young in class acclimate to school

12.26.2011 | The Desert Sun | Michelle Mitchell

California is phasing four-year-olds out of kindergarten classes, but offering “transitional kindergarten” for them instead.

“This program is … that transition between the preschool and the kindergarten,” said Stella Kemp, executive director of educational services at Coachella Valley Unified School District. “It’s actually a slower, more deliberate development for the students.”

Current age requirements allow students to enter kindergarten if they turn five by Dec. 2, about three months into the school year.

By 2014, California students will have to be five by Sept. 1 to start, a cutoff date shared by many other states.

As the younger students are no longer eligible for regular kindergarten, they will be placed into the transitional program.

In an effort to reduce confusion, all three public school districts in the Coachella Valley will place students born between September and December in the transitional program starting next year.

Transitional kindergarten is the first step in a two-year program and is designed for the developmental needs of younger students.

They will move on to a regular kindergarten class the next year.

Students with these fall birthdays are either held back by their parents or are the youngest in the class at an age when even a few months can greatly impact developmental abilities. Often they struggle and end up repeating kindergarten.

“Their little brains haven’t grown long enough for them to be ready,” said Stepheny Loutsenhizer, a kindergarten teacher at James Carter Elementary in Palm Desert. “It’s just not developmentally appropriate to ask a four-year-old to do what’s expected of them academically in California.”

“It’s not about intelligence,” she said. “It’s about maturity.”

Kindergarten is the new first grade, educators say, not the play-filled day of songs and naps that the class once represented.

These five-year-olds are writing multiple sentences and doing simple math and come home most weeks with a stack of homework.
Younger students often don’t have the skills needed for this more rigorous environment — the attention span to sit still for longer periods of time; the dexterity to hold a pencil or cut paper.

“When they come in, and they’re only four, they’re just not ready to sit and learn,” said Kelly Cronin, a 17-year kindergarten teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary in Palm Desert.

“They’re still in the play mode.”

Transitional kindergarten will introduce the skills they need to master in kindergarten, but at a pace catered to the younger children.

“This is much more developmental, more hands-on,” said Mick Wilhite, director of supplemental services at Desert Sands Unified. “We’re giving them an exposure … and giving them a better chance to succeed in kindergarten.”

The new program will add some cost — which couldn’t be estimated — for schools that will need to purchase additional curriculum and classroom materials, said Tony Knapp, director of elementary education at Palm Springs Unified.

However, it won’t necessarily require another teacher, since these students are already enrolling in school, he said.

Since the students eligible for the transitional program represent roughly a quarter of all kindergartners, a school with four kindergarten classes could switch to one transitional and three regular kindergartens.

The decision

Nicole Farmer of La Quinta agonized over whether her son, Brandon, should stay in first grade this year.

He just made the cutoff to start kindergarten last year by turning five on Sept. 1.

But two-weeks into first grade, he was having trouble keeping up with his older classmates in the more rigorous class.

“It’s not that he academically couldn’t hang,” Farmer said. “His behavior isn’t ready.”

Brandon, 6, went back to a second year of kindergarten — despite Farmer’s fears about how repeating would make him feel — and is doing great, she said.

Her daughter, on the other hand, is one of the youngest in her class. The age difference didn’t impact her until she started middle school at the same age as the fifth-graders.

“She’s getting two F’s when she was on the honor roll,” Farmer said. “I wish I would have waited. She would have been able to socialize so much better.”

Farmer wished schools would just set a firm cutoff date to save parents the grief of deciding what’s best.

Marlene Acuña’s son will turn five on Oct. 1, and she wants him to go straight to the regular kindergarten.

He’s been in a preschool program and knows numbers, colors, shapes and is spelling his name, Abraham, she said.

“I don’t want to just keep it at a standstill where he’s learning the same thing for three years at a time,” the Coachella mom said. “I need him challenged to keep going forward.”

California was one of four states — Connecticut, Michigan and Vermont — and the District of Columbia to have a kindergarten cutoff date after Dec. 1 in 2008.

A 2006 study found that there can be long-term effects of the age difference between the youngest and the oldest students in a class.

The younger students performed between 4 and 12 percentiles worse in fourth grade and 2 to 9 percentiles worse in seventh and eighth grades than the oldest students. Comparatively older students were about 12 percent more likely to enroll in college, the study found.

Kindergarten is not required in California, so there will still be an element of parent choice, even with the new law.

Michelle Mitchell covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach her at michelle.mitchell@thedesertsun.com or (760) 778-4642.

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