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Families Scramble to Find School Spots for Late-Birthday Five-Year Olds

04.12.2012 | The Potrero View | Sasha Lekach

Statewide efforts to prepare young children for elementary school led to the legally-mandated launch of transitional kindergarten (TK) programs, starting with the 2012 school year. However, in January, as the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) school application period came to a close, the state proposed to leave decisions about whether to offer the preparatory program to individual school districts. Parents with children in “birth date limbo” — the cutoff for kindergarten enrollment for fall 2012 was pushed from December 2 to November 1 — were abruptly told that the TK program wasn’t going to be offered.

The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, or Senate Bill (SB) 1381, changed the birthday cutoff for kindergarten and first grade admission and established transitional kindergarten. In response, SFUSD told parents of children turning five years old between November 1 and December 2 that they had until January 27 to apply to a TK program, which would be offered alongside traditional kindergarten classes. After one year of TK the students would either continue onto first grade, or move into a kindergarten, depending on their abilities. On January 25, Governor Jerry Brown proposed to withdraw state funding for the program, and allow individual districts to decide whether to accommodate transitional kindergarten. This “trailer bill language” was part of proposed budget changes to existing laws.

According to Preschool California spokeswoman Deborah Kong, roughly 125,000 children would be TK-eligible, about the size of a quarter of the statewide kindergartner population. The nonprofit advocacy group is opposed to the governor’s proposal, which it believes would jeopardize these students’ rights to attend school, especially in districts that choose not to provide any transitional programs, leaving a large number of almost-five-year-olds, or “young fives,” without a kindergarten option for an entire year.

On March 6 SFUSD announced, “Given the uncertainty of whether or not California is going to fund and mandate Transitional Kindergarten, SFUSD will offer TK at Leola M. Havard Early Education School and McLaren Early Education School to students who are born between November 2 and December 2, 2007.” The state budget is supposed to be finalized by July 1, but its passage has been frequently delayed, creating uncertainty as to when the district will know the fate of statewide support. In the meantime, SFUSD’s two TK options, both located in the City’s Southside, will have space for 150 of the 275 children who applied to the transitional kindergarten program before the January 25 announcement.

Havard  — named for the first SFUSD African-American woman school principal — was formerly named the Burnett Child Development Center, and is located at 1520 Oakdale Avenue. The school was renamed last year after the district acknowledged that Peter Burnett, California’s first governor, supported laws that discriminated against blacks, Asians and Native Americans. McLaren is located near the Sunnydale housing complex, and is part of a high school facility with the same name. “If more apply than there are spaces, [SFUSD] will look for other locations,” said Carol Lei, Parents for Public Schools San Francisco’s interim executive director. “It’s hard to anticipate how many people are going to apply.” According to the district, “SFUSD will guarantee a TK placement at one of these two schools. If these schools become fully enrolled, SFUSD will offer every eligible student a TK placement at another SFUSD Early Education school.”

Some parents have suggested that SFUSD accept “kindergarten-ready” waivers, which would allow parents or preschool teachers to formally notify the district of children who are suitable for kindergarten despite the cutoff birth date. Marija Maldonado, whose middle child, Ivana, turns five on November 2, was excited about her daughter enrolling in a transitional kindergarten program. Prompted by the state’s TK announcements and what she considered to be limited SFUSD offerings, at a mid-February school board meeting Maldonado asked board members to accept waivers to let certain kids into kindergarten, enabling preschool teachers to vouch for children on a case-by-case basis. However, according to Lei the district has decided to not accept waivers.

With her daughter only 12 hours behind the enrollment cut-off, Maldonado feels like it’s salt in a wound that the district has limited her options to two schools far from her Ingleside home, and so late in the process. “SFUSD told us they would be enrolled in regular kindergarten, so nobody looked at other preschools or options.” Maldonado was left scrambling by the new policy, something she didn’t have to grapple with for her 16-year-old daughter, Selene, a junior at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. Maldonado, whose husband Jaime runs the Mission bakery La Victoria, is weighing her alternatives for the fall. “Given the options on the table, I will either look for private school kindergarten, which I really can’t afford, or look into curriculum and home school. I haven’t decided which is best yet.” Selene has attended public San Francisco schools since kindergarten. Maldonado’s youngest daughter, Elida, isn’t yet two years old; Maldonado wasn’t expecting to be worrying about her five-year-old’s fall education plans.

Aside from her personal logistics, Maldonado asserted, “this is a blatant way to disenfranchise kids.” She has organized a parent group to lobby the district. She met with school officials at the beginning of March, but felt that the district used the gathering to inform her of decisions they’d already made. She said letters she’s written to all 11 supervisors have garnered no response.

Bayview resident Forest Gray has an almost two-year-old and a four-year-old daughter who turns five on December 1, a month behind the new cutoff date. He sees the district’s offerings at the two TK locations as “unacceptable options.” He cited last year’s shooting of a five-year-old girl walking with her father from the Havard preschool on Third Street near Palou Avenue, and the proximity of the crime-ridden public housing complex to McClaren as reasons why the school sites are inappropriate. “The schools [the district] has chosen are a slap in the face for working middle class families,” he said. Gray asserted that it appeared that “[the district’s TK option] doesn’t conform with SB 1381 because it is a segregated special program, which it isn’t supposed to be.” Gray is working with other affected parents to advocate for a policy change, but he’s not optimistic. “There are very few options short of litigation, leaving the City, or paying for private school,” he conceded.

According to Preschool California senior policy advisor Scott Moore, under SB 1381 average daily attendance funding is available to TK students and cannot be taken away. “That’s important for districts out there who say, ‘We want to do [TK] but we’re not going to do it unless we get funding for it’,” Moore explained. The administration has changed the policy to allow the school district to choose to receive funding if it chooses to go ahead [with the program].”

Additional transitional kindergarten programming is slated to be phased-in over the next three school years, with the kindergarten enrollment cutoff date pushed one month back each successive year. By fall 2014 a student will have to turn five years old before September 1 to enroll in kindergarten. “A lot of this is all politics,” Lei contended. “SFUSD is in between a rock and a hard place. We applaud them for announcing this now. Other districts don’t know what they are going to do with TK.” According to district officials, since the TK funding situation may change over the summer, as the governor’s proposal is considered in budget debates, SFUSD has to continue with the school assignment process for the City’s other 14,000 families. “In order to minimize disruption to the majority of the applicant families and to act in a financially responsible manner, the District needs to plan for stand-alone TK programs at sites that can accommodate TK children,” the district posted on its site.

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