Kern educators say age 5 is right for kindergarten

10.01.2010 | Bakersfield Californian | Steve Swenson

A new state law that will keep some 4-year-olds from entering kindergarten won mostly praise Friday from Kern educators.

The law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger late Thursday will in 2012 begin a three-year plan to roll back the age eligibility to enter kindergarten from December to September. The rollback will be one month per year until by 2014 only those children who are 5 by Sept. 1 can enter kindergarten.

As it is now, 4-year-olds with birthdays in October, November and December can enter kindergarten, and in many cases that’s too young for the academic and social demands of the modern kindergarten, local educators said.

“Kindergarten is not what it used to be,” said Stephen L. Sanders, division administrator for child development and other services for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office.

Kindergartners learn letters, numbers, words, colors, how to write with a pencil, how to listen to instruction and how to act in a classroom, among other skills, Sanders and other educators said.

While there are exceptions, most of the younger children in today’s kindergarten classes struggle, he said.

California has been one of only four states that allow entrance to kindergarten with fifth birthdays as late as December; most require September birthdays, news reports say.

The debate shouldn’t be so much about age, but what can be done to assure success, said Jamie Henderson, former superintendent of the Rosedale Union School District and new executive director of First 5 Kern, which is aimed at helping children from infants to age 5.

A 4-year-old student who waits a year has a much better chance of success than beginning too early, he said. “If they experience success, they build on success,” he said. “If they encounter setbacks and failure, they can build on that and we don’t want that to happen.”

Janice Yackovich, a Williams School kindergarten teacher in Bakersfield, actively worked to help state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, get the bill passed. She was quoted on his stationary saying, “As a kindergarten teacher for the past 13 years, I know firsthand the struggles our young 4-year-olds face in trying to succeed in today’s academic kindergarten setting.

“Not only do the kids have a difficult time learning material that is not age appropriate, but we as teachers are not adequately able to teach the entire class due to the ever increasing wide range of readiness skills.”

The Bakersfield City School District, the largest elementary district in the state, “had no opinion” of whether increasing the age to enter kindergarten is a good idea, communications supervisor Marco Paredes said.

“But we will follow the law,” he said.

There’s a Part B to the bill that says that an estimated $700 million per year school districts will save by having fewer students will be used to fund “transitional kindergarten” classes to help those 4-year-olds who are no longer eligible for kindergarten.

The state Department of Education says about 100,000 of Californian’s 430,000 kindergartners start before their fifth birthday.

That’s the unknown in the bill — whether there will be enough money to pay for such a program or whether that will be an additional financial burden on already strapped school districts, said Gerrie Kincaid, assistant superintendent of educational services at Panama-Buena Vista Union School District. “We haven’t gone down that road yet,” she said. “A new curriculum will have to be created.”

Added Kevin Silverberg, superintendent for Standard School District, “It would be wonderful if there is actual (state) money tied to it. We’re not holding our breath.” But he added that “we look forward to any kind of program that will help those in kindergarten.”

Right now several school districts in Bakersfield have five-week summer programs called “Ready to Start,” which have noticeably enhanced the chances that entering kindergartners can succeed, educators said.

Silverberg and Sue Lemon, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the Rosedale Union School District, gave the program high marks, based on teacher reports that students who have gone through it perform significantly better than similar children who didn’t attend such a program.

Lemon explained the program targets children who have had little or no preschool programs. “It has been really successful,” she said.

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