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California’s transitional kindergarten closes achievement gap, could save money

03.22.2013 | CAFWD.ORG | Matthew Grant Anson

President Obama’s State of the Union appeal for universal preschool access has stirred much debate on what it would mean for California. But lost in the cherry-picked statistics is the fact that this year, the state already implemented its own drastic change to early childhood education in the form of transitional kindergarten. 

The new program, which changes kindergarten from one year to two years to form a sort of bridge between preschool and kindergarten, began its implementation this academic school year after its 2010 approval. While it’s mandatory that schools provide transitional kindergarten, it’s still optional for parents to enroll their kids.

According to Los Angeles Universal Preschool CEO Celia Ayala, the benefits for children (and California financially in the long run) are great enough that parents shouldn’t pause before enrolling their kids.

“Having been a kindergarten teacher in the 70s and an elementary school principal, I know kindergarten today is so much more rigorous and demanding of the children and the teachers,” Ayala said. “Any opportunity that a child has to participate in a program that provides to get them kinder ready is an advantage.”

Ayala points at the increasing difficulty of kindergarten as the catalyst behind the achievement gap that can start early. The days of kindergarten centered around childcare and finger painting are long over, replaced by instruction and learning that requires a level of ability and understanding from the get go.

“When children start kindergarten, children come without a certain amount of vocabulary and social and cognitive skills,” she said. “They start already behind. The achievement gap starts in kindergarten.”

Consider transitional kindergarten California’s attempt to intervene early, where benefits not only go to the student directly, but also toward the state’s financials down the road.

“When children get what they need early, and when we’re working with them, and there’s an early intervention, it is so much less costly as opposed to a prevention program that starts in 8th or 10th grade,” she said. “Every dollar we invest, the rate of return is so much higher.”

And it’s California that is mostly going it alone when capitalizing on this rate of return, according to Ayala. “I think it’s more of a California thing,” she said. “I truly believe it’s a movement to try and apply our dollars so our children get an opportunity. It’s something I’ve been longing for and fighting for. I think transitional kindergarten programs are part of the initiative the president wants to help.”

But what else can California do to best position itself for the future?

“Where should we be spending more money? Early on,” Ayala said. “When you have a foundation, you can build anything. When you have a weak foundation, you have problems to fix, and that is more costly in the long run.”

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