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Districts prepare for transitional kindergarten

12.31.2011 | San Francisco Chronicle | Jill Tucker

School districts across the state are trying to figure out how best to implement a new law that adds another year of school to the state’s public education system, but one only for entering 4-year-olds born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

The year of transitional kindergarten will be an option for the more than 120,000 kids in California who turn 5 each year during that 90-day window, children who were old enough to start kindergarten but often struggled to keep up.

Transitional kindergartners will get more circle time – sitting in groups around their teacher learning how to listen, ask questions and get along with classmates and building essential skills like how to hold a book and which direction the pages turn.

“This is what kindergarten used to be,” said Catherine Atkin, executive director of Preschool California.

Not anymore. Today kindergarten is also about learning to read and write, and educators have found that kids who started school when they were still 4 years old too often were falling behind.

New cutoff date

So the state decided to roll back the old Dec. 2 kindergarten birthday cutoff date to Sept. 2, and give parents the option of putting their autumn babies into transitional kindergarten. The idea is to give the children an extra year of basic training before they move into kindergarten and on into first grade.

“We used to think of kindergarten as the get-ready year for real school,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who authored the legislation. “Today kindergarten is real school.”

But adding the additional year for a select number of students hasn’t been easy for some districts.

Under Simitian’s bill, the age cutoff for entering kindergarten will be moved back a month at a time over the next three years. Next fall, only children who turn 5 before Nov. 2 will be eligible to enter kindergarten.

That means children who turn 5 between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2 next year will be eligible for transitional kindergarten in 2012. Parents with children who have birthdays outside the transitional-K eligibility window can petition their district to participate.

To ensure there are enough children to fill classes, some districts, including Oakland, plan to offer the transitional-K program only at a handful of schools.

Districts cope

Other districts plan to put transitional kindergartners into regular kindergarten classes, where the young students will stay for two years before moving on to first grade. Still others are creating combo classes where differentiated instruction will be offered.

In San Francisco, district officials aren’t quite sure what they’ll offer at each of their 70 elementary schools.

Part of the problem is that the district doesn’t know how many parents will sign up for transitional kindergarten, said Carla Bryant, head of early education programs. Parents will apply for transitional kindergarten the same way as those applying for kindergarten, selecting preferred schools and entering the district’s lottery system.

Most likely, the transitional-K program will look different depending on the school, something that might make it difficult for parents to decide whether they want to participate. It won’t be a cookie-cutter approach, Bryant said.

“We are just really trying to look at how best we can do this,” she said. “I wish I could give you all these definitive answers.”

Tough decision

For decades, California parents of babies born in the fall have struggled to decide when to send their kids to kindergarten. Many chose to hold their children back to allow for an extra year of maturation.

Other parents opted to put their children into school during their first year of eligibility, sometimes because they couldn’t afford another year of preschool.

Too many of those young kindergartners struggled, with some suffering the stigma of being held back in a later grade, Simitian said.

Ensuring every child is ready for kindergarten should translate into higher test scores and lower retention, supporters said.

“It was one more way to say, ‘Guess what guys, children come in at a range and we have to get really smart about how we work with children … and give them a rich instructional environment,’ ” said Bryant, the San Francisco district’s head of early education. “I’m excited about that part of it.”

Or, as Atkin of Preschool California said: Transitional kindergarten gives children “the gift of time.”

E-mail Jill Tucker at jtucker@sfchronicle.com.

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