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Kindergarten age change seeks to help children excel

05.10.2011 | Stockton Record | Jennifer Torres

Throughout San Joaquin County, schools have begun registering children for next year’s kindergarten classes, and from her office at Tracy’s South/West Park Elementary, Principal Ramona Soto can observe her future students.

Some of the incoming kindergartners wait calmly while their parents gather paperwork. Others, she said, “are not able to sit down in the chair. They don’t want to be away from their moms for even a minute. It does give you some perspective, from that early on, about … which kids are going to be needing extra support.”

In a state with one of the country’s latest birth date cutoffs for kindergarten enrollment, it is entirely possible for a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old to sit next to each other on the same story-time rug. For such young children, the age difference can be a developmental gulf that many experts say leaves younger students at a disadvantage.

But starting in the 2012-13 academic year, children will have to turn 5 by Sept. 1 in order to enroll in kindergarten, a move that local educators already are preparing for and one that they say will give more students a successful first year in school.

“Research shows that if a student starts already behind, they stay behind,” Soto said. “This is a perfect opportunity to really help the child who might not be ready socially or academically.”

Most states require that children be 5 by September in order to start kindergarten. In California, that cutoff date currently is set at Dec. 2, so that children just older than 41/2 can enroll.

But last year, legislators approved a bill that pushes the date back three months. It also creates a new transitional kindergarten program for the more than 100,000 children with fall birthdays, giving them two years of preparation before starting first grade.

That will result in fewer children held back a year in school, fewer children referred for special-education services and, eventually, higher graduation rates, said Cory Jasperson, a consultant for state Sen. Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto. Simitian authored the bill that changed the kindergarten entry age.

Children who start school before they are ready “end up not just struggling in kindergarten, but struggling year after year after year,” Jasperson said.

“I think this is long overdue,” said Gary Dei Rossi, deputy superintendent for the San Joaquin County Office of Education.

In a former role as a school principal, Dei Rossi said, he often asked kindergarten teachers what change would make the biggest difference toward improving children’s success.

Changing the cutoff date for kindergarten entry was usually what they suggested, he said.

“Those three months make such a difference,” Dei Rossi said. “Moving it back will give kids more time to be successful in school.”

In Room 73 at South/West Park Elementary, teacher Kathy Morano led kindergartners through an exercise that called on them to write complete sentences, including an adjective, a noun and a verb.

She read one girl’s entry.

“Where’s your punctuation?” she asked.

The girl went back to her desk.

In the span of her 12-year career, Morano said, kindergarten has become more academically demanding.

“There is so much expected of them,” she said. “They leave having to write complete sentences. They leave having to read. It’s hard for a 4-year-old. … You don’t want them to feel discouraged. I want them to want to be here.”

She thinks the new transitional kindergarten program will help most children with late birthdays. But, she said, there are always exceptions. This year, the most academically talented student in her class is one of the youngest, a child who started kindergarten as a 4-year-old, she said. Waiting an extra year to start school might not have been a benefit for him. (Under the new law, parents who feel their children are ready can still apply for early kindergarten entry.)

In 2008, the Public Policy Institute of California published a report that analyzed the results of 14 studies examining the effects of delaying kindergarten.

Overall, results were positive, with studies showing higher standardized test scores – and one even suggesting higher adult wages – for students who started kindergarten when they were relatively older.

And already, educators report, many parents who can afford to pay for an additional year of child care or private preschool voluntarily wait to enroll their children in kindergarten because of perceived benefits. The practice is known as academic “redshirting.”

But the Public Policy Institute analysis also suggests that pushing back the entry age for kindergarten might be a disadvantage for low-income children, who make up a large percentage of San Joaquin County’s student population. Because they typically attend preschool in smaller numbers than their more affluent peers, delaying kindergarten could leave them still further behind.

For such students, South/West Principal Soto said, developing a strong pre-kindergarten program will be key.

“It won’t be as rigorous academically,” she said. “It’s really focusing on the social and the motor skills so that in the second year, now you’re ready for the academics.”

Parent Rachel Garner volunteers in Morano’s classroom once a week. Her son, who was born in March, was several months past his fifth birthday when he started kindergarten.

“He’d been to preschool for a year, and he was ready,” Garner said.

Her younger son has an October birthday. She doesn’t think he’s ready yet.

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