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Putting kitchens back into kindergarten

11.11.2011 | Thoughts on Public Education Blog | Kathryn Baron

Kindergarten teacher Paulie Esquivel looked around the model classroom and started taking a mental inventory – in reverse. Dress-up area; she used to have that. Puppet theater; that, too, was once in her class. Ditto for the sand table, paint and easel, and water table.

“To me, it’s what kindergarten used to be: fun and exciting,” said Esquivel, who teaches in the Planada Elementary School District, about eight miles south of Merced. “You don’t see all this any more.”

In the fourteen years since she started teaching, kindergarten has become first grade. There’s a lot more paper and pencil work and listening to the teacher, and a lot less of what Esquivel describes as the “creative, artsy, fun, play stuff.”

This week she got a glimpse of the future at a transitional kindergarten summit in Sacramento, and it looked a bit more like the past. Transitional kindergarten (TK) is  what regular kindergarten used to be.  The model classroom had a dress-up area where kids could be firefighters, police officers and doctors.  It had giant floor puzzles, puppets, an area to build cities and bridges with wooden blocks, and a kitchen with sturdy wooden appliances for playing pretend and baking mud pies.

“This clearly is a classroom for young fives, you can tell that the minute you walk in the door,” said State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) when he toured the model TK classroom at the summit.  Simitian is author of SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moves up the kindergarten cut-off date from December 2nd to September 1st, phasing it in over three years, so that by 2014 children will have to be five years old to enter kindergarten.  (Read our article about TK research here).

Kindergarten not spared standards and assessment

“The moment of clarity for me was as I was working on this legislation, I was looking at a kindergarten report card and came across the assessment for algebra skills on the kindergarten report card, and I thought, ‘This is not the kindergarten that most of us remember so fondly,’” said Simitian.

The primary purpose of the 2010 bill was to move up the kindergarten cut-off date from December 2nd to September 1st, phasing it in over three years so that by 2014 children will have to be five years old to enter kindergarten and, hopefully, be mature enough to sit still for longer periods of time so they can learn academic subjects. Transitional kindergarten was the necessary hook to get parents on board who otherwise saw the prospect of paying for another year of childcare or preschool.

“I think it’s a really great idea,” said Ann Villegas, a kindergarten teacher in the San Lorenzo Unified School District.  “I have thirteen children in my classroom right now that started as four year olds, and I feel like it would be a huge service to them to be able to have that extra time to mature a little and be ready for the academics of kindergarten.”

Villegas has been teaching for ten years, so she never knew the kindergartens of yore, but she says her principal gives her leeway and a nearby storage room.  “So I can bring my kitchen in or my puppet theater in.  I can bring them for an afternoon and then put them back [in storage],” Villegas explained.

San Lorenzo Unified is starting TK next year and Villegas wants to teach it.  “I think I’ve always had a developmental approach to teaching and this just feeds right into it and allows me to teach my students how I think they’ll best learn,” she explained.

Although the start date for TK is next fall, more than twenty California school districts have already started offering the classes with promising results.  Magnolia School District in Anaheim has been four classes serving 100 young fives and may open a fifth class next year.

Eighty-five percent of Magnolia’s students are English learners, and many are poor and homeless, said Jeannine Campbell, director of early childhood education for the district.  So even for their older five-year olds, meeting the state standards for kindergarten is a challenge.  Consider this requirement for mathematical reasoning:

1.0 Students make decisions about how to set up a problem:
1.1 Determine the approach, materials, and strategies to be used.
1.2 Use tools and strategies, such as manipulatives or sketches, to model problems.

2.0 Students solve problems in reasonable ways and justify their reasoning:
2.1  Explain the reasoning used with concrete objects and/or pictorial representations.
2.2 Make precise calculations and check the validity of the results in the context of the problem.

Campbell said they started TK as a proactive effort. “We really believe that prevention is far better than intervention and remediation,” she said.  Over the five years of the program, they’ve learned lessons and made refinements that they shared at the summit to help other districts avoid the same snags. For instance, Magnolia started TK as a full-day program, but quickly realized the children couldn’t handle a six-hour day.

“Their little four year old bodies just were not ready for that,” said Campbell.  “We found children were taking naps on the carpet and it wasn’t the best learning environment.”  They changed it to half a day in the fall and a full day after winter break when all the children will be five years old.

The great budget unknown

Amid the excitement at the summit, there were also some anxious rumblings that, faced with an ongoing budget deficit, Gov. Brown may be tempted to delete funding for TK in his January budget proposal.

The way TK is funded, there’s no cost to the state for the first 13 years because all the children in the new classes would have been in traditional kindergarten otherwise.  Every year until they graduate from high school, paying for this group of about 126,000 students will be a wash.

But if TK’s budget appropriation was eliminated, and the new enrollment ages kept in place, then the state could capture an additional $700 million.  Of course districts probably wouldn’t save any money because it’s unlikely they would lose enough students to warrant dropping an entire class, so they’d still have all the fixed costs but with less money due to the drop in ADA funds.

It’s hard to know what to make of the talk, however, because there’s been no hint of such a proposal from the Governor’s office.  ”It’s a rumor.  There’s always somebody floating an idea, that’s one the scary things,” said Cathy Wietstock, who oversees TK for the Orange County Department of Education.   But she acknowledged that even without any solid evidence, district officials are worried.  “They’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, is this really happening?’  Yes it is, the law it there, we need to comply with the law, so the train has left the station”

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