REGION: Gov.’s budget proposal threatens transitional kindergarten

01.07.2012 | North County Times | Stacy Brandt

A proposed state budget released last week could derail a two-year kindergarten program for younger students that school districts in North County and throughout the state had been preparing to start this fall.

The so-called “transitional kindergarten” program was required under a 2010 state law that changes the cut-off date for when students are eligible to enter kindergarten.

The changes, to be phased in starting this year, will eventually mean that a child must be 5 years old by Sept. 1 to start kindergarten. Previously, children had to be 5 by Dec. 2.

The same law required school districts to offer transitional kindergarten classes for students born after Sept. 1 who, under the change, would miss the cut-off date. An estimated 120,000 students statewide would qualify for the program.

However, a 2012-13 state budget proposal released Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown eliminates $223.7 million in funding that would have paid for those classes. Educators in North County said Friday that they’re still trying to figure out what that means.

Pilot program

The Oceanside Unified School District has already started four transitional kindergarten classes under a pilot program. There are 125 students in those classes, which started in August.

The pilot classes will continue for the rest of this school year, but it’s unknown what will happen after that, said Luis Ibarra, associate superintendent in charge of business services for the district.

It will be up to the school board to decide whether to offer the extra classes for younger students and, if so, to figure out how to pay for them.

The classes offer younger children more time to develop fundamental skills and behaviors that will help them succeed as students in the future, said Rahn Decker, who teaches the transitional class at Mission Elementary School.

“We know that the more time that they can have early on in appropriate environments, the better they do later on,” she said.

Dinah Brown, who is overseeing the pilot program, said, “It’s a positive thing for our young kids. We spend a lot of money on intervention, and I see this as prevention.”

Local districts

In the Vista Unified School District, a team of teachers, administrators and parents was supposed to begin meeting this month to determine the best way to roll out the new transitional classes.

Now, officials aren’t sure whether that team will continue to meet. They’re waiting for more information before deciding, said Jeanie Luckey, assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction for the district.

If districts are going to start the classes this fall, there are many details they will need to figure out by then, Luckey said, including how many classes to offer, where and how to get students there. They also need to put together curriculum guidelines for teachers, she said.

“This could be very difficult for districts unless they make a firm decision within a few weeks,” she said about state officials.

Escondido Union School District teachers and officials formed a similar team to look at changes to the kindergarten program.

That group will continue to meet regardless of what happens with the transitional funding because it’s discussing the entire program, not just the transitional classes, said Leila Sackfield, assistant superintendent in charge of educational services.

Encinitas Union School District officials have done some preliminary planning for the two-year kindergarten program, but they will stop that work until something changes, Superintendent Tim Baird said.

“I think this all gets put on a shelf at this point, because I think transitional (kindergarten) is basically done,” he said.

Uncertain future

The California Department of Education plans to fight to keep funding for transitional kindergarten, said Paul Hefner, communications director for the California Department of Education.

“If (the funding cut) were to take place, that would really be a major step backward in California’s early learning efforts,” he said.

If the governor’s suggestion is adopted by the state legislature when they pass the budget, there would be some students who were too young for kindergarten but too old to qualify for state-supported preschool programs, Hefner said.

“We’d be leaving some folks literally with no place to go,” he said.

It’s too early to know whether the state Department of Education will offer school districts recommendations about how to proceed with the transitional classes, Hefner said.

Call staff writer Stacy Brandt at 760-901-4009 or follow him on Twitter @NCTcoastschools.

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