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Fight to revive SF transitional kindergarten plan

02.13.2012 | San Francisco Chronicle | Jill Tucker

Dozens of San Francisco parents are fighting a school district
decision to abandon plans for transitional kindergarten, a program
created by state law to prepare children not quite ready for regular
kindergarten.

Transitional kindergarten was to begin next fall for a small number of kids who won’t turn 5 years old until after next Nov. 1.

Historically, children who turned 5 on or before Dec. 2 could enter
school as kindergartners, put into classes with children months older.
But the law that created transitional kindergarten made those younger
kids ineligible for kindergarten so they could be better prepared.

That was fine with parents like Marija Maldonado, who were counting
on the new program for their children. In San Francisco, 180 families
applied for transitional kindergarten.

But when Gov. Jerry Brown, in a cost-saving move, proposed to eliminate funding, San Francisco school officials canceled their program altogether.

The cancellation defied state law and left Maldonado, in her view,
with few options for her daughter, Ivana, who will become a 5-year-old
on Nov. 2, one day too late to become a kindergartner.

“If she was born 12 hours earlier I wouldn’t be dealing with this,”
Maldonado said. “Now we’re looking for (preschool) as an alternative,
but most of those programs are closed.”

Frustrated parents

Maldonado knew she wasn’t the only frustrated parent. She sent out
e-mails to parent groups looking for others who wanted to stand up
against the district’s decision.

The responses poured in from one family after another, all wondering
what they will do in the fall and whether the district will work with
them to accommodate their children.

So far, the district is standing firm. Despite the two years the San
Francisco district, like other districts throughout California, has
spent getting ready to provide the program, uncertainty over the state budget makes transitional kindergarten too much of a financial risk to pursue, school officials say.

“We encourage them to continue with their pre-K options,” said district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson.

While California lawmakers decide whether to fund the program, the
families’ applications for transitional kindergarten have been set
aside.

The financial impact

The state could save about $675 million if it doesn’t fund
transitional kindergarten, according to the Legislative Analyst’s
Office. Many districts have said they couldn’t support the program
without the $6,000 per child in state funding they would receive to pay
for it.

If the state decides to stick with transitional kindergarten, San
Francisco school officials have said they will offer it at two early-education sites, both located on the southeast side of town – in the Bayview and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods.

Most school districts have continued with their efforts to offer the
program, although some have said they would cancel the program if the
state withdraws the funding for it. Transitional kindergarten supporters
have been holding rallies across the state, encouraging elected
officials to retain the program.

“I can understand the anxiety and confusion at the district in San
Francisco,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who wrote the law
to create transitional kindergarten. “But I found their (decision)
perplexing. I’m perplexed because t-k is law.”

The governor’s proposal is only a proposal, Simitian said.

Parents in San Francisco say they understand the district’s concern
over finances and the uncertainty at the state level. But they argue
that the district could continue planning for transitional kindergarten
and, like other districts, wait to see if the state eliminates funding.

If transitional kindergarten is not funded, the district could then
offer those children a waiver to start kindergarten even if their
birthdays fall after the Nov. 1 cutoff, an option the governor has
offered to fund.

That would mean the district would still get state funding for those
students, who would then be counted as regular kindergartners, Simitian
said.

2-year kindergarten

Another option, Simitian said, is a two-year kindergarten program for
their children available under state law as long as parents sign
authorizations, he said.

“If the district can get over itself, there’s a very simple solution
for all of this,” said parent Forest Gray, whose daughter Scarlett turns
5 on Dec. 1. “It almost seems like it’s petty.”

The San Francisco school board has yet to weigh in on the issue, leaving it in the hands of Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

Parents plan to attend a board meeting Tuesday to ask the seven elected officials to intervene.

Board member Rachel Norton said the district has been put in a
difficult position with the parents because of the political
flip-flopping in Sacramento.

“Their M.O. is to create programs and then jerk the funding away,”
she said. “The burden is always on the districts to explain the
machinations.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. jtucker@sfchronicle.com

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