New in schools: a bridge to kindergarten

08.27.2012 | San Francisco Chronicle | Jill Tucker

The little girl in pink shoes, a pink shirt and a pink hair band stood defiantly in her public school classroom as she declared her age, which was definitely not 4.

“I’m 4 1/2,” Brennan said adamantly.

In fact, the pint-size San Franciscan is a little older than that.

She’ll turn 5 in November, a birth date that made her too young to start kindergarten this year, but among the first to qualify for an extra year of free public education called transitional kindergarten. (The school district would not allow publication of Brennan’s last name.)

About 40,000 California children, age 4 and with November birthdays, qualified for the post-preschool, prekindergarten program – created after the state decided to move back the birthday cutoff for kindergarten entry from Dec. 2 to Nov. 1 this year.

The new law has eliminated a conundrum long faced by California parents of children born in the fall.

Even though their kids qualified for kindergarten, many chose to hold their children back to allow for an extra year of maturation.

Other parents opted to put their 4-year-olds into elementary school during their first year of eligibility, sometimes because they couldn’t afford another year of preschool.

Yet too many of those 4-year-old kindergartners have struggled academically, socially or both, and many were held back a year, which put them at risk of future academic failure, teachers said.

The new law prevents those 4-year-olds from enrolling in kindergarten, but gives them an alternative.

1st change since 1891

With transitional kindergarten classes just starting in some districts, it is unclear how many families will take advantage of an additional year of free public education, the first new grade added to the system since 1891.

Like kindergarten, transitional kindergarten must be offered to families, but is optional. Districts have significant flexibility in how the classes look.

This fall, some are offering it at elementary school sites, either in separate classrooms or combined with kindergarten classes. Others are offering the program at only a few school sites.

In San Francisco, 142 children of about 300 who were eligible enrolled in the district’s transitional kindergarten classes, located at five preschool sites.

At Tule Elk Park Early Education School, 44 4-year-old students with November birthdays, including Brennan, finished their first week of transitional kindergarten Friday.

In one classroom, five students huddled spellbound around teacher Megan Haley for a read-aloud of the book “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”

Others played with star stickers or shape blocks, a few painted, and some made meals in a play kitchen.

“I don’t like school,” declared Alexander Villarce as he sat in a chair and played with plastic chopsticks and a toy truck. He said he’d rather play at home.

But he agreed that things might eventually look up.

“I got new friends,” he said, pointing them out in the room. “I’ve got old friends, but I’ve got new friends.”

Next year’s leaders

With only five days down, it wasn’t a bad start to a year aimed at getting students socially and academically ready for the rigors of kindergarten.

“In the past, these kids would have been eligible for kindergarten,” Haley said, whether they were ready or not. “Next year, when they go to kindergarten, they’ll be the leaders in their classrooms.”

And in those classrooms, kindergartners aren’t just finger-painting and playing in sandboxes. They now are learning early reading and writing skills as well as basic math. In addition, they have to be able to sit still, listen and work in groups with other children.

Transitional kindergarten classes will bridge preschool and kindergarten, offering play time, painting and, later, early literacy and math skills, said Meenoo Yashar, a director in the San Francisco’s Early Education Department.

“What we’re trying to do is not be a repeat of preschool and not a repeat of kindergarten,” she said.

Across the state, the program will expand over the next two years as the kindergarten cutoff pulls back first to Oct. 1 and then to Sept. 1.

Cutoff dates to change

Starting in 2014, 4-year-olds with birthdays from Sept. 2 to Dec. 1 will be eligible to enroll in transitional kindergarten.

Parents with children who have birthdays outside that eligibility window can petition their district to participate.

“Transitional kindergarten is one of the most exciting and innovative educational reforms California has seen in decades,” said Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, in a statement. It “will ensure that California’s youngest learners are ready to succeed, and that will translate into huge payoffs for academic success.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:

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