Santa Barbara schools to launch transitional kindergarten program

12.19.2011 | The Daily Sound | Elise Clements

As public schools around California are gearing to implement mandated phased-in transitional kindergarten programs, the Santa Barbara Unified School District is looking to get a head start.

Transitional kindergarten (TK) is intended to give young learners the opportunity to enter the school system at their own pace. Currently California law stipulates that children
who turn five by December 2 of a given school year can attend kindergarten, but this means a number of children start school a year younger than their peers.

A law passed in 2010, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, pushes the December 2 cutoff to September 1, and requires schools to offer TK to students whose birthdays are between the old and new cutoffs beginning with the 2012-2013 school year.

Just as kindergarten is not mandatory, TK will also be optional for parents. And parents who have a child that does not meet the cutoff and is capable of regular kindergarten, can still apply to have their kid advanced to kindergarten or first grade.

The law allows schools to phase the age requirement in over three years, pushing it back one month each year, but the district decided to leap ahead and implement the September 1 date begging next year.

Superintendent David Cash said this decision sprang from a mixture of common sense and wanting to accommodate parents.

He explained that because the state is pushing the cutoff to November 1 next year, a lot of the kids who will be eligible for TK under the school’s plan would be going into kindergarten. Allowing for these kids to do TK instead is a way for the district to give parents the option of deciding what is best for their child, Cash said.

“Parents are the first and foremost educators of our children,” Cash said. “This gives them the opportunity to make that decision right off the bat.”

He praised the program as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. TK’s lean more towards child development than kindergarten, but have advancements in curriculum.

“It may be a funny way of saying it, but it gives them a structured, unstructured opportunity,” he said.

Director of Curriculum and Categorical Programs Cynthia White said that TK programs are really a return to the way kindergarten has been run traditionally.

The word translated from German means “children’s garden,” and White said that when she taught kindergarten back in the 80’s, classes reflected this definition. Though math and reading were always important, White said the program used to be development focused.

But programs have increasingly centered more and more around academics, White said. This shift began in the 90s and was solidified by No Child Left Behind. While this is appropriate for some, White said, other children miss out.

For this reason some parents in the past have chosen to hold back their younger children, a practice labeled “red shirting.” White said TK’s are a normalization of the red shirting tradition, and hopes that parents will feel more comfortable selecting this option for their kid.

While White admits the literature and research into red shirting is mixed, based off her own experience and conversations with other teachers, the benefits for many children are undeniable. She described children who had not developed the motor skills to wield a pencil or scissors.

“If you talk to a kindergarten teacher they are thrilled,” White said. “They know the younger kids just struggle; that difference between four and five and a half is huge.”

And, White said, it doesn’t stop at the lower grades. Children who enter kindergarten when they are not ready are constantly catching up, following them all the way until they are seniors in high school.

“We have time and I’m glad we are using it this way,” White said. She said most states require children to turn five before entering kindergarten, and TK’s are just a way of leveling the playing field for California’s students.

School Board member Monique Limon said that the mandate speaks to efforts within the district to boost early childhood education. There are already some preschool in district school, such as Harding University Partnership School, and Limon said their success speaks to this effort.

“Our community has embraced early childhood education for some time,” Limon said. “So this is really the State following the community.”

Having TK’s in all district schools would provide early childhood education to all their students, rather than just those at the select schools that currently have preschools, an important step, Limon said.

She said she has already received a number of emails from curious and eager parents. The Board approved the program on Tuesday in a 5-0 vote.

The state gives schools a lot of leeway as far as what programing they will adopt, and the district has started looking at some options. White said they are looking at other schools that have already adopted TK programs in the state, as well as working with researchers at UCSB.

Cash said more specifically they are looking into “Imagine It!” reading resources,  and “Math Their Way,” as well as personalized learning and language programs, and experiential PE, music, and art programs. he said the district is also looking to incorporate parent involvement with field trips and workshops.

Designing curriculum that can ease a child’s transition into school through TK’s is an important and welcome step, he said.

“Giving this opportunity is a huge win-win for parents and most importantly for students,” Cash said. “Anyone who understands the importance of recognizing a student’s sense of well being is excited.”

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