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Elk Grove district begins school age shift, transitional kindergarten

11.14.2011 | Sacramento Bee | Diana Lambert

Preet Sandhu wasn’t surprised to learn last week that her daughter Kirat wasn’t eligible for kindergarten. Elk Grove Unified staff had done a good job of getting the word out.

Sandhu’s daughter turns 5 on Nov. 5, 2012 – and a new law requires that kids be age 5 by Nov. 1 to enroll in kindergarten next school year. Currently, California children could enroll in kindergarten if they turned 5 by Dec. 2.

The new law changing the age requirement for kindergartners is being phased in over three years. In the fall of 2013, children must be age 5 by Oct. 1. In the fall of 2014, students must turn 5 by Sept. 1.

So what happens to these kids with later birthdays?

The law that changed the age requirement also called for a new grade level – transitional kindergarten, or TK.

The question of starting kindergartners later has been discussed and debated at the state Capitol for 25 years, said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, at the transitional kindergarten summit held at a Sacramento Sheraton last Tuesday.

Simitian, author of the legislation that created TK, called it a “game changer” that would ultimately lead to better test scores, fewer children placed inappropriately into special education classes and fewer held back in school.

TK will focus on improving motor and social skills to prepare children for the academic rigors of kindergarten.

In 2008, a Public Policy Institute of California review of 14 studies found that students who start kindergarten older perform better on math and reading tests in eighth grade.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Heather Wright, a kindergarten teacher at Elliott Ranch Elementary in Elk Grove who is helping develop TK curriculum for the district.

She said kids will learn to raise their hands, stand in line, relate to their peers and use words appropriately, among other things.

Most parents agree there is a need. “It’s a good thing they are doing,” Sandhu said, adding that some children need practice before kindergarten.

“I think it can benefit the kids,” said Sherry Tam, who also was standing in line at Joseph Sims Elementary last Monday morning.

Tam said her son – whose birthday is Nov. 16 – is small and could benefit from an extra year of preparation, even though he is academically prepared for kindergarten.

Educators at the summit said parents often balk at the prospect of putting their child in transitional kindergarten because they believe their child is “really smart” and prepared for kindergarten.

Parents also may be put off by logistics. Most schools will only have a handful of students eligible for transitional kindergarten – meaning most will have to attend schools outside their neighborhoods. The state law does not provide transportation.

About 350 Elk Grove Unified students are eligible for transitional kindergarten next school year, said Bob Roe, director of elementary education for the school district. He said Elk Grove Unified, which has 39 elementary schools, would likely have 15 TK classes.

Twin Rivers Unified may take another tack – combining TK and regular kindergarten classes so students can attend their neighborhood schools.

“It will be an interesting journey,” said Tom Janis, assistant superintendent. He said the district wants to finalize its plan within two weeks.

But whatever the plan, parents have options. Transitional kindergarten – like kindergarten – is voluntary.

Parents must sign a release before a child is required to attend a second year of kindergarten. Parents also have the right to move their child into a regular kindergarten program at midyear, after the child turns 5.

School districts have eight months to pull their programs together. Many are looking toward local trailblazers such as Placerville Union and Rescue Union school districts in El Dorado County. Both rural districts have pre-kindergarten programs that have become models for other schools.

Teachers can really tell which students went through the pre-kindergarten program at Placerville Union, said Nancy Lynch, superintendent. She said the program is so popular it has a waiting list.

Sacramento City Unified also kicked off a transitional kindergarten program in the spring of 2010 at a handful of schools. The district now has 100 students enrolled at six sites.

Others are still trying to figure it out. Whatever a district decides to do, it must move forward quickly, Raymond said. “The natural tendency is to let fear hold you back.”

Transitional kindergarten registration for traditional schools and modified traditional schools will take place, in most cases, during regular kindergarten registration in January or February.

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