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Few state rules for Transition K

06.24.2011 | Thoughts on Public Education | John Fensterwald

Light touch from Sacramento on new program

School districts that have complained for years that Sacramento attaches too many strings to new state programs should be pleased with transitional kindergarten, the new program for “old” 4-year-olds that districts must offer, starting the fall of 2012. There will be lots of latitude for the locals and few state-imposed rules. And that, says the law’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Simitian, is by design.

Ending decades of talk but no action, the Legislature last year moved up the start of kindergarten, requiring that children must turn five on or before Sept. 1, instead of Dec. 2, to enroll in it. Students who turn five between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 will now be eligible for a transitional kindergarten followed the next year by a traditional kindergarten.

California had been one of  few states that allowed 4-year-olds in kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers and psychologists had argued for years that wasn’t a good idea and that children would be far better off coming to kindergarten developmentally ready.

The Legislature’s approach was to adopt transitional kindergarten, as opposed to state-funded preschool or no substitute at all. Adding an extra year of kindergarten actually won’t cost the state any money until year 14, when the cohort of September to November birthdays would have graduated but instead will be in their senior year of high school. Proponents are betting a good portion of the cost will be offset by fewer special education expenses and fewer students being held back in elementary school. But to ease the transition, the program will be phased in over three years, one month at a time. Starting in September 2012, the kindergarten start date will be Nov. 1, then Oct. 1 in 2013 and Sept. 1 in 2014.

As for the particulars of transition kindergarten, SB 1381 was vague, defining transition kindergarten only as “the first year of a two-year kindergarten program that uses a modified kindergarten curriculum that is age and developmentally appropriate.”

“I have been a local control advocate for years,” said Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto who served on the Palo Alto Unified school board for eight years before running for Legislature. “People said give us flexibility and so with transition kindergarten, we did just that.”

There was also a financial reason for flexibility: avoiding creating state mandates that the Legislature would then have to fund.

Questions answered

Districts have had plenty of questions, and most have been answered in an FAQ on the Department of Education website. The basic message: The rules for kindergarten also apply to transitional kindergarten: Yes, there must be a credentialed teacher in the classroom; no, like kindergarten, transitional kindergarten is optional, not mandated for children. Otherwise, it’s each district’s prerogative whether to run combination classes, whether to go half or full day, whether to supply transportation and whether to offer transitional kindergarten at every school.

Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, a big advocate for transitional kindergarten, says she agreed with Simitian’s “light touch.”

“I appreciated his strong belief that this was not about having the state creating more requirements and trying to centralize the program,” she said.

What the State Board of Education has done is take the first step toward setting standards for transitional kindergarten, which will be a blend of early childhood learning guidelines and state kindergarten standards. The Board has asked the California State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care (ELAC) to propose them. Atkin praised the effort, while expressing worry whether ELAC will be around next year; Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed eliminating it.

Meanwhile, for lack of a set curriculum, Preschool California, with Packard Foundation support, has encouraged school districts that already have a transitional kindergarten in place, such as Sacramento City Unified and Los Angeles Unified, to share their experiences and best practices with other districts. LAUSD currently runs the program in 36 schools and will add an additional 100 this fall, one year before the program formally starts.

Simitian still has a bill, SB 30, in the hopper in case unresolved issues need to be clarified. But at this point, he said, there aren’t any.

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