New school of thought: Kindergarten becomes two-year program for some

11.28.2012 | | Laura Christman

Mornings in Room I at Buckeye School of the Arts in Redding start in Calendar Corner with 4- and 5-year-olds sitting “crisscross, applesauce” on a blue rug rimmed with the alphabet. Earlier this week, after singing songs and figuring out the date, the students were ready to take on the day’s theme: “All about V.”

Teacher Vivian Torres pulled miniature versions of a van, vest and vacuum cleaner out of a wooden box, naming each object and emphasizing the beginning sound.

“Vuh, vuh, vuh,” she said.

“Vuh, vuh, vuh,” the students echoed.

Welcome to kindergarten — but with a twist. Nine of the 25 students in Torres’ class are transitional kindergartners. It’s a new program where some students will do two years of kindergarten before hitting first grade.

“I absolutely love it,” said Torres, who has taught kindergarten for 25 years. “It gives them a little more time to develop. We call it the gift of time.”

This is the first year California school districts have been required to offer transitional kindergarten under the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010. The act moves the age for starting school to 5 and brings California in line with most states.

Changing the cutoff age for kindergarten is a little dicey. There’s the risk of disappointing fired-up 4-year-olds eager to strap on a backpack and head off to school, or upsetting parents who weren’t expecting to pay for another year of day care or preschool. California is taking it gradually, rolling back the traditional Dec. 2 deadline for turning 5 by one month each year until it locks in as Sept. 1 in 2014.

The deadline this year was Nov. 2 but children who didn’t have their fifth birthday by then didn’t have to stay home. Parents had the option of enrolling them in transitional kindergarten.

“It’s a different set of standards. Expectations are slightly different,” said Steve Henson, director of instructional services for Gateway Unified School District in Shasta Lake.

The academic emphasis in regular kindergarten continues to ramp up, so a bridge year for younger students is a big plus, he said. Gateway has combination classes of transitional and regular kindergartners at two of its three elementary schools — Buckeye and Shasta Lake.

Torres covers the same concepts with all of her students but the activities vary when they break into small groups. Instead of cutting and gluing, transitional kindergartners might be sorting objects.

“They are doing more exploring — lots of hands-on and not as many pencil-to-paper tasks,” Torres said.

Redding School District had enough eligible children to create a stand-alone transitional kindergarten but opted to combine transitional and regular kindergartners in classes on all six elementary school campuses.

“We want them to integrate with the school that they are going to continue with,” said Rob Adams, director of educational services.

Adams said the program has been well received. “We had a lot of parents who opted to put their child into transitional kindergarten. They see the benefit of giving the child an extra year to progress maturitywise.”

“It is a great way to honor children and let them be kids,” said Vicki Ono, a kindergarten teacher at Manzanita Elementary School in Redding.

While some 4-year-olds can recite the alphabet, read words and count, being bright doesn’t necessarily mean being ready, she said.

“Development of physical abilities, patience and the ability to focus change greatly with age,” she said.

Her class of 25 has 13 transitional kindergartners who attend half of the day. Lessons are adapted for them. Not expecting the transitional kindergartners to master regular kindergarten tasks avoids frustrations, Ono said.

“I don’t want little people to think they are failing if they can’t do it. Next year in regular kindergarten things will come easier to them and they’ll be the leaders of the class,” she said.

It won’t be like repeating the same class because the activities of regular kindergarten are different and the day is longer, she said.

Ono waits until after the transitional kindergartners have left before she brings out workbooks for her regular kindergartners. “I can show them how to cut out the pictures in the workbook without cutting up the entire book and they get it.”

Money for transitional kindergarten comes via the state’s average-daily-attendance formula for funding schools. Because the program is new, districts are still refining it. North Cow Creek School in Palo Cedro expected to offer a separate transitional kindergarten class but only one student qualified, said Jeff Harris, superintendent/principal. The 266-student school is offering two kindergarten classes with fall-birthday children in one. Harris said more students will be eligible for transitional kindergarten as the rollback of the cutoff date continues.

“We should see more interest in families wanting to put their children in transitional kindergarten,” he said.

Whether transitional kindergarten sticks around once the Sept. 1 date is the norm is up to the state Legislature. Harris expects it to continue because children need to be developmentally ready to meet the newer, more rigorous curriculum for regular kindergarten.

“I don’t see that this is going to go away anytime soon,” he said.

Watch a short video from Buckeye School of Arts.

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