Older, wiser kindergarten classes considered by state lawmakers

04.14.2010 | Santa Cruz Sentinel | Shanna McCord

SOQUEL — Kindergarten isn’t just time to play and share a snack.

Students are expected to read, compute simple addition and subtraction and write a sentence or two.

Besides the academic rigor, kindergartners should be able to tie their shoes, go to the bathroom on their own, blow their nose and know when to say “please” and “thank you.”

For some kids, being able to meet those standards comes down to a difference of three months, according to many educators and state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who this week introduced legislation that would change the minimum age of children starting kindergarten.

Simitian has proposed a bill that would require kindergarten students turn 5 by Sept. 1 of the school year. Under current state law, the kindergarten cutoff is Dec. 2 of that school year.

Not rushing into kindergarten, Simitian says, would improve scholastic performance and save the state an estimated $700 million each year in education spending with a reduced student population.

California has one of the latest cutoff dates in the country, and about a quarter of all students are age 4 when they begin kindergarten, according to the state Department of Education.

Simitian said the age change is supported by nearly 300 teachers in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

“It would be beneficial both academically and socially,” said kindergarten teacher Megan McGooden of Soquel Elementary School. “A little more time in a preschool setting or at home with their parents would prepare them better. If they’re not ready for the classroom environment, kindergarten can be pretty scary.”

Soquel Elementary School has three kindergarten classes with a total of 66 students.

By the end of the school year at least five or six students are seriously considered for repeating kindergarten instead of moving on to first grade, Principal Eric Gross said. On average, three are held back each year, he said.

“Those retained, I’d probably say 100 percent of the time thrive in their second year of kindergarten,” Gross said. “Kindergarten is a structured environment with an academic focus and some kids just aren’t ready. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Karen Richmond, a kindergarten teacher at Valencia Elementary School in Aptos, said it’s rare for a 4-year-old to be ready for a formal classroom setting.

“Legally they can start when they’re 4, but it handicaps a lot of kids,” Richmond said. “Changing the age requirement evens the playing field and gives a huge advantage to wait the extra time.”

Simitian’s kindergarten bill, known as Senate Bill 1381, will be heard by the Senate Education Committee today. It will need to be passed with a simple majority by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Assembly before being sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk by Aug. 31.

The new age requirement would be phased in over three years beginning in 2012. Parents could request exceptions from their local district.

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