“Junior” kindergarten provides transition grade
11.08.2010 | Sign On San Diego | Hailey Persinger
One of the two kindergarten classrooms at Marvin Elementary looks a lot like the kindergarten of 15 years ago — a sand table sits in the corner, student drawings are strung along one wall and two dozen four- and five-year-olds shuffle around to different themed stations.
In the kindergarten class next door, children sit in neat rows and spend the day concentrating on letters, numbers and mastery of both.
The first classroom is the site of Marvin’s junior kindergarten program, a class that focuses on preparing children for the academic rigors they’ll face next year in the type of classroom found just one door over.
Many of the program’s students could technically enter the more academically-driven kindergarten since they’ll turn five just before the Dec. 2 deadline. But some parents who feel their children are not quite ready for the heavier workload have signed them up for the program that focuses on exposure to academic standards instead of mastery of them.
As academic rigor trickles down to kindergarten classrooms, putting pressure on teachers and students to excel in subjects once left to first grade and beyond, schools across California have instated junior kindergarten programs that give the youngest would-be kindergarteners a place to mature and become acquainted with the routines and the basic structure of school.
Trisha Livingstone, a teacher who helped launch the junior kindergarten program at Marvin Elementary nearly four years ago, said the class adheres to state education standards without the performance pressure that testing has gradually placed on California’s kindergarteners.
In her class, students are simply dipping their toes into the academic waters through what she calls “structured play,” which introduces children to academic basics while allowing them to finger paint, play house and sing songs.
“I expose (standards) to them but I don’t make them master things,” Livingstone said. “It’s not so much the academics because a lot of times the academics catch up with them anyway.”
The low-stress, young-student focused curriculum is one that will eventually make its way to all California schools as part of a law that takes effect next year.
Starting in fall 2012, children around the state will have to turn 5 years old by Nov. 1 to be eligible for kindergarten entrance. The cutoff will move back by a month every year until 2014, when children will have to turn five by Sept. 1 to secure a spot in kindergarten classrooms.
Legislators estimated that changing the cut-off date for kindergarten would generate about $700 million for the establishment of a statewide transitional kindergarten program like the one at Marvin.
Tracey Wehrman, who has sent two of her children through junior kindergarten, said the program was the reason her family chose Marving Elementary School to begin with. She said her six-year-old daughter, who is now in kindergarten, seems far ahead emotionally, academically and developmentally of other children who hadn’t been through the program.
Until the state mandates junior kindergarten, elementary schools can decide whether to offer it if they have enough money to cover the cost. With a projected deficit that reaches into the tens of millions of dollars, the San Diego Unified School District is considering reverting to half-day kindergarten. Marvin Principal E. Jay Derwae worries such a move would affect regular kindergarten and the school’s junior kindergarten class, which currently has a three-year waiting list filled with names of families hoping to score a spot in the program.
He said the regression to half-day kindergarten would put even more pressure on kindergarteners to perform at high levels with less instruction time and give junior kindergartners less time to focus on the social aspects that make the program what it is.
“By the time I got through language arts and math, the day was shot,” Derwae said of the time he spent teaching half-day kindergarten.
While parent feedback is positive about the social advantages the program, Livingstone and Derwae are waiting to see quantitative evidence of how much of a difference the program makes in academics until next summer when its first batch of junior kindergarteners — now in second grade — receive their first set of standardized test scores.
“You know, maybe it won’t make a difference,” Livingstone said. “But it certainly is not hurting.”