New classes set to start as kindergarten age cutoff moves up

12.07.2011 | Ventura County Star | Cheri Carlson

Thousands of 4-year-olds in California will start getting some extra help next fall.

A new state law allows those children to take two years of kindergarten classes, the first in a special transitional program. The classes are being added as the state moves up the birthday cutoff gradually over three years.

In the fall, children will have to turn 5 by Nov. 1 to enroll in regular kindergarten classes — a month earlier than this year. By 2014, children will have to turn 5 by Sept. 1 to be eligible — a move legislators approved in 2010 to boost student achievement and bring California in line with most other states.

“This is much better for making sure the kids who enter kindergarten are ready for the rigor of kindergarten,” said Rose Dunn, director of instruction for the Las Virgenes Unified School District, adding that kindergartners are expected to master more advanced skills than in years past.

While children with November birthdays will be ineligible for regular kindergarten, they can enter the transitional program. The classes expose children to the same standards but don’t expect them to master the skills.

Most district officials and parents thought changing the cutoff for kindergarten was a good idea. Planning for the new transition classes, however, has created issues.

Some districts already have similar classes, geared toward children with early birthdays. Others will be adding them for the first time. That means developing programs, training staff and setting up curriculums, all without more money.

Meanwhile, the new program may be vulnerable to further state education cuts, local officials said.

The Ventura County Education Office has set up a task force to help school officials prepare, and local districts are studying options.

Part of the challenge is a limited number of students expected to need transitional classes in the first year, which in some cases may mean combination or multigrade classrooms, officials said.

Las Virgenes plans to expand its transitional kindergarten program, Journeys, to all of its elementary campuses next fall. The program will take children who don’t turn 5 until November and be open to kindergarten-eligible pupils who may need extra help.

The Oak Park Unified School District plans to have classes at two of its three elementary schools next year. It already has a transitional program called discovery kindergarten on those campuses.

In its third year, the program was aimed at children turning 5 between July and December. Officials still plan to have the class open to all of them, although those with November birthdays will get priority.

Jennifer Sorensen, a teacher at Red Oak School in Oak Park, looked out at 23 children plopped down on the rug in her discovery kindergarten class last week.

Kindegarteners have a paper-and-pencil activity with every lesson, Sorensen said. In her classroom, she uses the same academic standards but builds up to the skills children will need in kindergarten.

“The biggest difference is it’s more developmental, more hands-on,” she said.

That may mean starting to build letters with blocks before using a pencil or learning counting by playing a game.

“Developmentally, there’s an enormous difference between a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old,” said Leslie Heilbron, an Oak Park assistant superintendent.

Younger children may have less-developed fine motor control, the kind needed to grasp a pencil properly. They also may lack the social and emotional maturity needed in a classroom, teachers and parents said.

Kelly McGugan’s daughter, Cameron, turned 5 in September. She chose the discovery kindergarten class, wanting to give her a little extra support.

McGugan agrees with the decision to change the birthday cutoff. The younger children aren’t necessarily ready for a structured class, leaving teachers having to spend too much time addressing behavior issues.

“I think 4 is too young,” she said.

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