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Educators celebrate first six months of transitional kindergarten

02.08.2013 | EdSource | Lillian Mongeau

Transitional kindergarten, the new grade level for children whose fifth birthdays fall early in the school year, is 6 months old in February. At a statewide conference in Pasadena this week — the first large gathering since the program was implemented — teachers, administrators and advocates talked about best practices and cheered what they see as long-needed reform.

Long Beach Unified Superintendent Chris Steinhauser praised it, too, but also tempered enthusiasm with a warning to advocates not to let their guard down. He said the new initiative should not repeat the experience of California’s class size reduction program, begun in 1996 to reduce K-3 class sizes to 20 students per teacher. Because it was hastily created, no research was done at the outset to measure the impact of smaller classes on academic performance. Steinhauser said that this time teachers and districts should collect their own data to prove the program works and then talk about it to legislators often.

“We cannot allow folks five years from now, when we have a downward economic cycle, to say, ‘That early childhood thing over there, we don’t need it,’” Steinhauser said.

In fact, the American Institutes for Research is studying the implementation of transitional kindergarten this year, and will conduct a long-term study of the quality and outcomes of the program.

Though the program only became mandatory this fall, Steinhauser’s district first implemented an optional transitional kindergarten program six years ago. So far, little data is available as to its impact, but Long Beach Unified assistant superintendent Jill Baker said the early indicators from the first small group of students show that the program is working to bring the youngest kindergarten children up to speed.

Transitional kindergarten came into being statewide as a result of a longtime push to change the age at which students are eligible to enroll in kindergarten. Unlike most states, California has long allowed children who turn 5 years old by December 2 to start kindergarten. Starting in the fall of 2012, the state began rolling back that cutoff date to eventually reach the more common Sept. 1.  This school year the cut off birthdate date for admission to regular kindergarten is November 1. Next year it will rolled back to October 1, and in 2014-15 and thereafter to September 1.

The fledgling grade level nearly lost its funding last year when Gov. Jerry Brown cut it out of his proposed 2012-13 budget. Funding was restored in the May 2012 budget revision, prompting many districts to scramble to set up transitional kindergarten classrooms by the start of this school year. Now that Prop. 30 has passed, district leaders said they were more confident that the program would become a permanent part of the education landscape.

Better preparation for first grade

Many educators have long felt that the state’s youngest kindergartners were starting school at a developmental disadvantage.  Most teachers just hoped for a new cutoff date, but were thrilled with the inclusion of a provision setting up transitional kindergarten.

“This was a dream come true,” said teacher Shannon Varner, a 20-year veteran of early childhood and early elementary education in Monrovia near Pasadena.

Nearly every speaker who came to the podium during the large group sessions at the conference thanked the crowd for their work in convincing Sacramento lawmakers to do what was “best for kids.” There was hardly any grumbling about the challenge of creating what is in effect a new grade level, implementing a new curriculum and training teachers to do things differently.

“We’ve wanted [transitional kindergarten] in the field for a long time,” Varner said. “Now, we have to keep working hard at it and making it better.”

Trisha Flores, a transitional kindergarten teacher in Newhall, north of Los Angeles, was ready to do just that. She attended a morning session on math in transitional kindergarten because she said she has taught in the upper elementary grades, and she knows how important those basic math skills are. The leaders of the math session talked about the concepts 4- and 5-year-olds should be able to master and the hands-on activities teachers can use to get them there. Flores said none of the information was brand-new to her after eight years of teaching, but she said the reminder that teaching math to young children doesn’t mean giving them worksheets and pencils was a welcome one.

“It solidifies the thoughts we had about slowing down and getting those foundations in place,” Flores said.

The idea that it’s finally all right to slow down was mentioned by several teachers who said it was a relief to know they had two years to get their transitional kindergarteners ready for 1st grade. The students attending transitional kindergarten this year would all have been in regular kindergarten last year, but were often those falling farthest behind,  teachers said. Now, those students have what some as the conference referred to as “the gift of time.”

Long Beach’s Steinhauser, a champion of universal preschool, thinks that’s a good thing.   “TK is one small step towards universal preschool and one giant step towards closing the achievement gap,” read one slide in his presentation.

Nearly 450 people attended the conference, organized by Preschool California, an early childhood advocacy organization, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Executive Director Catherine Atkin said she was especially pleased so many teachers showed up.

“I feel like we’ve asked them to do this really important job, and we’ve put a lot on their plate,” she said. “The conference was an opportunity to give them some concrete tools.”

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