Preppy K Goes Mainstream

03.17.2011 | California School Boards Association | Kristi Garrett

It’s 11 a.m.—circle  time in Tricia Wilson’s classroom at Jackson Elementary.

A handful of children are sitting on colorful numbered spots on a dark blue area rug. The first order of business is to dress Wilbur the cat for the weather.

“Who can tell me what the weather is like today?” the young teacher asks, pleased to see some raise their hands before blurting out an answer.

It soon dawns on her that one of the little girls has disappeared into the hallway. While she investigates, another young lady escapes the circle and goes across the room to gaze at the fish tank. A gaggle of boys is instantly at her side. A buzz of voices rises from the unattended group still on the rug.

Mrs. Wilson returns with the escaped student and begins snapping her fingers to a familiar beat.

“Criss-cross, applesauce … ” she sings in a soothing tone. “Hands in your lap … ” The children return to their places and eventually all are sitting quietly, ready for the lesson on the weather.

Is this a preschool scene? Kindergarten?

Actually, it’s a little of both. Here in the Rescue Union Elementary School District outside Sacramento, the class for “young fives”—children technically old enough to begin kindergarten, but who still need time to mature—is called Junior Kindergarten. Elsewhere in the state, similar models are called developmental kindergarten, transition kindergarten, Preppie K, and other labels that attempt to describe a new lighter version of kindergarten for children who need “the gift of time,” as some like to say.

The beauty of the concept is that there’s no rush to prepare for tests, no slate of skills to master by June. The child sets the pace.

“There’s always tomorrow,” Wilson says serenely, refusing to rush through her agenda for the day.

New law backed  by research

A new California law allows children with late birthdays to take another year before tackling the rigors of kindergarten. Senate Bill 1381, signed into law last fall, gradually moves the birthday cutoff from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1, giving children who turn 5 in the fall a new option. Parents will still have the final say about whether their child attends the voluntary program.
Schools will receive average daily attendance funding for students in transitional kindergarten, which will now be part of a two-year kindergarten program. The curriculum will be aligned to the kindergarten content standards, but delivered at a pace more appropriate to the child’s age and stage of development.

California’s combination of high academic standards, young kindergarteners and high needs was not a good mix, said proponents of the bill. Under the new transitional plan, young students will have a few extra months to mature and gain the skills they’ll need to increase their chances for success in school.

Recent research shows that youngsters who have the ability to control their impulses and follow directions, perform basic self-care tasks and motor skills, relate appropriately to others, and who know basic academic skills do better in kindergarten. Some studies even show the academic gains last into third or fourth grade and beyond.

The Rand Corp. examined the research on school readiness to see if further investment in preschool education was justified. “Scientifically rigorous studies show that well-designed preschool programs serving children one or two years before kindergarten entry can improve measures of school readiness and raise performance on academic achievement tests in the early elementary grades. They can also generate sustained effects on academic achievement into the middle-school years, and produce other education gains such as reduced special-education use and grade repetition and higher rates of high school graduation,” concluded the authors in their 2007 update of Rand’s multiyear California Preschool Study.

The Public Policy Institute of California recently agreed with those findings.

“A growing body of research indicates that investments in pre-kindergarten programs can produce both short- and long-term benefits that exceed costs. Programs targeted at low-socioeconomic-status children have the greatest returns. High-quality preschool shows particular promise,” the PPIC reported in “California 2025.”

The Santa Clara County Partnership for School Readiness studied the skills children had when they entered kindergarten, and how they were doing academically years later. They rated readiness in four areas: academics, motor skills and self-care, social expression, and self-regulation.

As might be expected, children who exhibited skills in all four areas did the best in kindergarten and remained ahead of their peers in math and English years later.

“Children who are able to recognize more letters as they enter kindergarten and who are versed with books … tend to have higher English scores at third grade,” the partnership reported in a 2008 study.

On the other hand, children who had much catching up to do were still behind academically into the third, fourth and even fifth grade. English proficiency, having gone to preschool, being older at kindergarten entry, being well-rested, and being female were a few of the factors associated with better grades years later.

Of course, as the study noted, the child’s temperament and health, intelligence, and the quality of the school, teacher and parenting practices also affect outcomes and were not measured in the study.

So the new transitional kindergarten appears to fill a crucial need. Currently, fewer than half of all new kindergarteners have gone to preschool, and just a fourth of those were in a high-quality program that follows the preschool frameworks, according to Rand. Even children who did attend a federal or state-run preschool must leave as soon as they turn 5. So a child with a birthday later in December could be out of a good preparatory program for up to nine crucial months before kindergarten.

Model programs exist

Recognizing the benefits, school districts and county offices of education across the state have already been offering various forms of kindergarten readiness—some for decades—that can provide insights and recommendations.
“For years we’ve been asking for this,” says Lake Tahoe Unified School District Superintendent Jim Tarwater excitedly. “How this worked out, with the transitional kindergarten, is exactly what we’ve been doing.”

One of Lake Tahoe’s Title I schools had been in Program Improvement for years, getting nowhere, when the school switched its focus to building readiness skills first, says Tarwater. While there haven’t been enough students through the program yet to produce definitive results, especially for English learners, Tarwater sees indications that the strategy is working. Eight of the 10 native English-speaking students that began in transitional kindergarten scored at the advanced level on standards tests in second grade.

David Swart, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Rescue UESD—remember Mrs. Wilson?—says they’re seeing signs that they’ll get similar results with their Junior Kindergarten, which was based on work done by their neighboring school districts in El Dorado County: Buckeye Union, Placerville Union and Lake Tahoe Unified. Rescue UESD started with two Junior Kindergarten classes last fall and is on track to have five classes—one at each elementary school—by fall.

“We’ve been in a fix-it mode in education,” where intervention comes after the achievement gaps are already apparent, Swart says. “Rather than fix it, why not get them off to a strong start?”

A huge pilot program is under way in the Los Angeles Unified School District. At the board’s direction in late 2009, staff looked into successful kindergarten readiness programs at nearby districts and developed a plan that was launched at 36 schools last fall.

Children there are screened for readiness with the parents’ permission. Principals and teachers explain the benefits of the program to students whose fifth birthday is in the fall, those who never went to preschool, or any child who the parent feels may benefit from the additional year before academics begin in earnest.

LAUSD’s Transition Kindergarten keeps younger students connected with their peers in the regular kindergarten during recess and lunchtime, and by sharing certain activities such as music and art.

Although it will take several years to see what effect the program has on student achievement by third or fourth grade, officials hope better preparation will lessen the need for special education referrals.

“I hope that with the additional year teachers have to enrich students, we won’t have to intervene as much,” says Elizabeth Magruder, one of the teachers tasked with helping the district develop its transitional kindergarten program.

Educating parents

Some parents, particularly affluent ones, have for years practiced “redshirting,” which is the practice of holding children out of school until they’re older to give them an advantage—academically, socially and physically.

But many parents, especially in low-income communities, may have never considered holding their child back voluntarily. They may not know the benefits, or they may need child care and so want their child to start school as soon as possible. Some may even see the transitional kindergarten option as a form of tracking.

In the Los Angeles-area district of Manhattan Beach, Joanne Schepis has been teaching a version of developmental kindergarten for 26 years. She says getting parents to see the benefits of keeping their child in an appropriate setting is seldom an issue.

“The kindergarten teachers are the ones who do most of the talking when a child needs to come to [developmental kindergarten],” she explains. “They will bring out work samples, they will show test scores, they will express their concerns about how the child deals with frustration, attention span, focus. But it’s totally the parents’ decision.”

Back in Rescue UESD, it’s Swart’s job to get the word out to parents about the benefits of the preparatory program through one-on-one and group meetings, press releases, neighborhood signs, and word of mouth.

The option for a child who has struggled through kindergarten used to be repeating the grade, but there are disadvantages to retention, Swart says: “It’s the same thing all over again, and kids lose their excitement for learning.”

On the other hand, if a child is struggling in regular kindergarten and is quickly transitioned to the readiness program, he’s more likely to feel like he’s doing well in school, Swart tells parents. That confidence continues into kindergarten and changes the child’s whole outlook on school.

“Having the opportunity—at no cost to them—to put their child in a place that will get them off to a strong start and help them be more successful as they go through school, is a big selling point,” he says.

The program is turning out to be a win-win for most districts.

“From a cost-benefit analysis, we’re adding ADA, we’re bringing in a group that we otherwise would not receive average daily attendance for,” Swart says. “It’s a financial win, it’s an academic win—but the bottom line is … it’s good for kids.”

Wendy David, board president at Lake Tahoe Unified 70 miles east of Rescue, is equally enthusiastic about her district’s Preppie K program.

“Giving them that extra year has really been a benefit for us,” she says. “We had been in declining enrollment, and this has been good for us. It’s given more kids an opportunity.”

Policy questions for boards

Every district is bound to have its own challenges to overcome when developing a transitional kindergarten option. Small and rural districts may find it difficult to set aside the facilities and teachers for the program; transportation and curriculum development can also be hurdles.

For Rescue’s Junior Kindergarten, for example, Swart says he worked with the teachers to look at the kindergarten standards and the preschool frameworks, and together they decided on the most important skills kids needed to be ready for kindergarten.

For them, the collaborative approach really worked.

“It’s really important to empower local teachers to have a piece of putting that curriculum together because then they own and operate it. It gets better buy-in, I think,” Swart says.

Much larger districts, like LAUSD, may need to standardize the curriculum a bit more.

“Districts are different,” says Magruder, in LAUSD. “While we all should have a similar framework, there is something to be said for tailoring it to what works for your district, and it really does depend on your demographics.”

Lisa Kaufman, director of the Early Learning Services Department at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, acknowledged that governing boards will play a major role in shaping the kindergarten readiness programs and policies in their districts.

“There are many ways of doing this,” she says. “There are a lot of creative ideas out there about how to do it best, in the most developmentally appropriate and cost-effective way that’s in the best interest of kids in your area.”

Small districts that have few children that qualify for the transitional program face unique challenges. Most likely, the affected students will become part of a split class where most receive the regular kindergarten program and the others are taught separately when needed. Teachers will need the proper training to ensure the curriculum stays developmentally appropriate, and unless the students stay at school all day, transportation could be an issue.
Nevertheless, there are small districts making split classes work.

Tarwater, in Lake Tahoe, says that the older kindergarteners can be good role models for the younger students in their class, who watch their more mature peers follow directions and interact as expected.

“That kind of modeling is very powerful,” says Tarwater. “Those younger ones may be immature, but by December they’re in the groove. That’s important.”

‘Just jump in’

The law on transitional kindergarten doesn’t start pushing back the entry date until 2012, so districts don’t have to act this year. But many recommend getting started right away with a pilot program.

“They’ll be ahead of the game, because there are a lot of kinks to work out,” says LAUSD’s Magruder.

Governance teams and district staff can ask county offices about programs to visit, and find out what others are doing.
“Why wait?” Swart enthusiastically agrees. “Jump into it. It’s so good for kids you will not regret it.”

Kristi Garrett ( ) is a staff writer for California Schools.

Click here for The ABCs of Kindergarten Readiness.

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