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Kindergarten bill would help spare kids the pain I felt

09.26.2010 | Sacramento Bee | Marcos Breton

I don’t have to wonder if my childhood would have been fuller and less traumatic if I had started kindergarten a year later than I did.

I know it.

Beginning kindergarten at age 5, instead of 4, would have given me a leg up to succeed developmentally and emotionally in ways that eluded me in my school years.

A Public Policy Institute of California review of 14 studies found that students who wait to start kindergarten score better on reading and math tests.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has the power to make this law. On his desk is a bill by Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, that would roll back the date by which entering kindergartners must turn 5 from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.

Please sign it, Governor.

It’s hard to describe the damage done when a kid feels dumb. That’s how I often felt from the fall of 1967, when I started kindergarten at age 4, to the spring of 1980 when I graduated from high school at 17.

Being a November-born kid often meant being the youngest student in class. The main casualty in my young life was self-confidence.

That’s not an issue for me today. On Tuesday night, a nationwide audience will see me featured prominently in the new PBS documentary on baseball by acclaimed filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

But as a kid my story was wrapped in self-doubt.

It began that first day of kindergarten, when separation anxiety from my parents caused me to bolt out an open door when my teachers weren’t looking.

Can you imagine? I can still picture my teacher and her assistant frantically running after me in their sensible shoes and bouffant hairdos. The ensuing years brought so-so grades. I often faded into the background, shrank from challenges and withdrew within myself while life swirled around me.

What saved me were my late parents, immigrants from Mexico who wanted the best for my brother and me – even if they didn’t always know how to help us achieve the best academically.

And at 19, I found a purpose – journalism.

I don’t blame my teachers, though I was moved along in San Jose’s public schools in the 1970s with remedial skills, particularly in math.

Even in my loving house there were bad study habits that should have been addressed much sooner.

Simitian’s bill can’t solve all the issues, but it does call for transitional kindergarten, which could be a godsend for poorer families who can’t afford preschool.

It also allows exceptions for parents who want their kids to start kindergarten at age 4.

Signing this bill could be one of the last, best gestures Schwarzenegger can extend to Californians before leaving the state Capitol.

Our jails and unemployment rolls are populated with former kids who bombed out at school.

Without love and good fortune, that could have been me.

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