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New class focuses on younger students

12.15.2011 | Napa Valley Register

Kindergartners will be a little older in Calistoga next year
under a new state law that pushes up the age limit for new
students, but younger students will be allowed to attend a new
pre-kindergarten program instead.

“It’s a question of readiness” for the younger students, said
Calistoga Elementary Vice Principal Jane Bunting, who is preparing
the school for the new system.

Previously, students who turned 5 by the beginning of December were
eligible for kindergarten. The new state requirement pushes that
back to the beginning of September, excluding most students who are
still just 4 when the school year begins.

Traditionally, 20 or more kindergarten students every year have
fall birthdays, meaning they enter the class at age 4, Bunting
said. But those students, often known as “young fives,” are often
not emotionally ready, and they are interacting with older students
who are more mature and developed.

Rather than simply excluding those slightly younger students from
school completely, the new state system requires school systems to
offer a pre-kindergarten class for those students born in
September, October and November who previously would have been
accepted into a regular kindergarten class.

The new younger class will be known officially as “transitional
kindergarten.”

The transitional class will be similar to regular kindergarten,
Bunting said, but will focus on emotional and social skills that
the slightly older kids already have.

The move is one that educators have long advocated, she said,
because those younger students, even though they are only a few
months behind their classmates in age, often struggle as they enter
school. If not handled carefully, those students can have problems
with learning and behavior even into the middle grades of
elementary school.

The new class is also intended not to leave parents in the lurch.
Private preschool and day care programs can be expensive, and many
are not yet set up to handle these older students who previously
would have moved on to kindergarten. Had the state changed the age
limit for kindergarten without providing some alternative class,
thousands of kids born in those fall months would have been left
with nowhere to go during the day at the start of next school
year.

Fortunately for Calistoga, the change should not be overly
expensive, Bunting said; it will cost about $5,000 in new materials
and a few other details.

It turns out that there are usually enough of the fall-born
students that one of the four current kindergarten classes can be
converted to a transitional class without having to hire a new
teacher or find new classroom space.

The change in the kindergarten age is driven in large part by the
changing nature of the early-age classes, focusing more on rigorous
academics.

“Kindergarten is very different than it was for you and me,”
Bunting said. “It used to be much more ‘play-to-learn’; now it’s
more ‘learn.’ We need you reading by the time you’re in first
grade.”

That academic focus magnifies the difference in emotional and
social development that just a few months in age can make, she
said.

Like regular kindergarten, the new pre-kindergarten class is free
for district residents. And like kindergarten, it is optional;
children are not required to attend school at all until age 6, when
they are eligible for first grade.

Most parents, however, do enroll kids in kindergarten, and school
officials are hoping they will put their younger children in the
pre-kindergarten classes as well.

Registration for kindergarten and the transitional class for the
2012-13 school year begins Feb. 8.

For information, call 942-4398.

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