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Protect transitional kindergarten for students and schools

05.26.2016 | Sacramento Bee | Fay Grundel

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Mariana stepped foot into my transitional kindergarten classroom when she was 4 years old, too young to start class.

She knew little to no English, was unsure how to follow class instructions and would hide by my side. Now near the end of the school year, she confidently walks into class to tell me about a book from home, she has friends and initiates activities, and she understands letter and number concepts.

She’s ready for kindergarten this fall thanks to transitional kindergarten.

In spite of significant student benefits and transitional kindergarten’s continued progress statewide, Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revision budget proposes to eliminate transitional kindergarten for up to 125,000 young children like Mariana. Cutting transitional kindergarten also endangers the jobs of thousands of teachers.

Such sweeping changes to California’s early childhood system that cut essential opportunities for children, families and teachers shouldn’t be rushed through the last few weeks of the budget process.

Research reflects what I have seen in my classroom: children in transitional kindergarten have a five-month learning advantage in kindergarten compared to their peers, according to the American Institutes for Research. Transitional kindergartners make real gains in early literacy, math and critical learning skills such as managing behavior and thinking flexibly. The National Institute for Early Education Research’s recent State of Preschool Yearbook highlights transitional kindergarten’s expansion as good news for California and the nation.

Transitional kindergarten was created by the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, which required kindergartners to be 5 years old by September so they can start more academically and socially ready for success. Before, younger children could start kindergarten and were often playing catchup. To ensure these children could still attend school, the Legislature established transitional kindergarten to prepare them for kindergarten.

Funded based on attendance, transitional kindergarten is the only stable funding stream for children in early education. Should the governor’s proposal pass, young children served in transitional kindergarten who have long held the right to a year of public school could be left without access to any education option come the next economic downturn.

For my students, transitional kindergarten is a must-have. A quality early education helps children build a strong foundation of skills that supports their learning every year after. Teachers in the early elementary grades can often tell which children had the benefit of transitional kindergarten. Many of the children in my school are English language learners, and transitional kindergarten is an important opportunity for them to gain critical literacy skills that help prepare them for school success and close the readiness gap before kindergarten.

This month, I attended the fifth annual TK Conference and was encouraged to see 350 fellow educators dedicated to continuing to provide transitional kindergarten. That same afternoon, I went to the Capitol to visit my representatives’ offices to advocate for my transitional kindergarten students.

I am heartened that many legislators have demonstrated a staunch commitment to transitional kindergarten by supporting policies to expand enrollment, improve quality and increase professional development for transitional kindergarten teachers like me.

The Assembly and Senate budget subcommittees on education already struck down the governor’s proposal. A smarter approach to making sure all students start kindergarten with foundational skills is Assembly Bill 2660, authored by Sacramento Assembly member Kevin McCarty, which calls for a state plan to provide children with a year of high-quality pre-kindergarten and includes transitional kindergarten as a piece of the early learning puzzle.

I hope legislators continue to stand with transitional kindergartners by approving this thoughtful measure.

Transitional kindergarten is proving to be a landmark educational opportunity for California – to undo it now would be a substantial step backward. It’s imperative that policymakers protect transitional kindergarten so that young children can thrive like Mariana.

Fay Grundel is a transitional kindergarten teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento. Contact her at fay.grundel@gmail.com.

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