Marin educators defend transitional education programs

05.19.2016 | Marin Independent Journal | Janis Mara

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A leading Marin educator blasted a move by Gov. Jerry Brown to eliminate transitional kindergartenand substitute block grants for early education as “another unfulfilled promise setting expectations but not paying for them.”

“Without the funding, it’s a farce,” said Mary Jane Burke, Marin County superintendent of schools, of changes proposed in Brown’s 2016-17 budget that would eliminate the requirement that school districts offer transitional kindergarten classes.

These classes make a bridge between home and kindergarten for children turning 5 after Sept. 2 and before Dec. 2 — a yearlong extended preschool program, as some educators have put it. The classes have drawn praise from Marin educators.

Marin’s two biggest school districts have a number of such students. There are 69 children enrolled in three transitional kindergarten classes in the San Rafael Elementary School District. Sixty-seven children total are enrolled in one standalone and seven combination transitional kindergarten-kindergarten classes in the Novato Unified School District.

Under Brown’s proposal, funding for transitional kindergarten and for low-income students who attend state preschools would be combined into one $1.6 billion early learning block grant providing pre-kindergarten programs for low-income students.

“Offices of education would have to provide this without adequate funding to do so,” said Amy Reisch, executive director for First 5 Marin. “The issue is taking it to the counties and saying, ‘Provide this resource without providing adequate money for the resource.’” The publicly funded First 5 commissions in every county in the state support the healthy development of children from birth through 5 years of age.

“The real issue is whether the Legislature would come up with the money,” Burke said. “If you say you’re going to provide a block grant and restructure the hierarchy without providing the money, we know it won’t work.”

As many as 120,000 transitional kindergarten students statewide could be affected by the move, estimated Erin Gabel, deputy director of external and governmental affairs for First 5 California.

Transitional kindergarten originated in 2010. That’s when legislators passed California’s Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moved back the cut-off birthdate for kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 and allowed the older 4-year-olds born from Sept. 2 to Dec. 2 to still go to public school by enrolling in transitional kindergarten. The classes were phased in statewide over a three-year period.

According to a recent report from American Institutes for Research, such programs are effective in preparing students for kindergarten.

Educators around the county reported similar results.

The programs “give us the opportunity to have our younger students in a kindergarten environment for two years, giving them an additional year of learning to succeed in school,” said Ruthanne Bexton, director of elementary programs for Novato Unified.

“We’re seeing great success in our current transitional program,” said Amy Baer, executive director of student support services for San Rafael City Schools. “It has become established and flourished and the kids who participate are well prepared for kindergarten.”

Sally Peck, principal of Anthony E. Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, said, “Those of us in the schools certainly see the benefit of transitional kindergarten.” The principal stressed that she was not fully briefed on Brown’s proposal, which districts only received over the past few days.

“Any of us who have been in education for a long time see, I think, that the standards are becoming more and more demanding for our children. Some of our babies just aren’t ready,” and transitional kindergarten classes can be helpful for them, Peck said.

Anna Harris, a transitional kindergarten teacher at Edna Maguire Elementary School in Mill Valley, sees the effects of such classes on a daily basis.

“Students are getting a lot out of it,” Harris said. Brown’s proposal “would be a backward step,” she added. “Teachers of older grades are seeing the confidence and social and emotional readiness of children who took transitional kindergarten classes.

“I respect his (Brown’s) need to have a balanced budget,” but the teacher said she felt this proposal was not the best way to go about it.

Matthew Nagle, principal of West Marin and Inverness schools, agreed with Harris.

“As you can see, with Gov. Brown’s budget, he’s warning us that a recession is coming, so message received,” Nagle said. “The second dot-com bust is underway.

“But I don’t think cutting services to students is the right thing to do,” Nagle said.

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