School Matters: Why Schwarzenegger should sign pre-kindergarten bill

09.22.2010 | New America Media | Ashlee Tran

When 4-year-old Emily Palomares first began the Preppy K class at Garfield Elementary School in Long Beach, she struggled to recite the alphabet and found it difficult to focus in class. Although she was eligible for kindergarten, her mother knew Emily would have a hard time keeping up with the other children, who were older and better prepared. Throughout her year in Preppy K, Emily worked with her teacher, Ms. Dixon, to learn the sounds of each letter, and by year’s end, she was reading at a mid-kindergarten level.

I’ve seen children like Emily developing the valuable foundation that prepares them to succeed in school in similar programs across the state. These transitional programs provide 4 year olds who would otherwise be enrolled in kindergarten the opportunity to develop the increased cognitive, social and emotional skills they need to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

A bill passed by the state Legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature would provide an opportunity for California’s youngest students to enter school prepared and ready to succeed. California’s children begin kindergarten at a younger age than kids in almost any other state, often before they have the skills they need to meet the challenges of school. Ours is one of only four states that sets the kindergarten entry cutoff date as late as Dec. 1; at the same time, California has some of the highest standards for what we expect children to learn in kindergarten classrooms. Currently, if children turn age 5 by Dec. 2, they can attend kindergarten. SB 1381, sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), would change the kindergarten entry date in California from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1, so children would enter kindergarten at age 5.

The bill would also create transitional kindergarten programs similar to Garfield Elementary School’s Preppy K . Transitional kindergarten would be funded with the money that would have been spent on regular kindergarten for those 4 year olds with fall birthdays. Without any additional funding, this program would provide the youngest students the opportunity to develop the skills they need for kindergarten.

Though the difference of a few months may seem small, it is significant for 4 year olds trying to meet kindergarten’s rigorous academic standards. My own kindergarten class included students that had the benefit of attending transitional kindergarten—and it was clear that they had a head start, having already developed important social skills, early math and literacy skills. Research also shows that children who attend high-quality early learning programs like transitional kindergarten are less likely to drop out of high school, be held back a grade or be placed in special education, and they tend to score better on reading and math achievement tests.

Many parents have already acknowledged these benefits and—for those with the resources—intentionally give their children additional time to mature before entering kindergarten, so their children start school ready to excel. SB 1381 would offer this opportunity to all of the 120,000 4 year olds who enter kindergarten each year in California, including the approximately 49,000 English Language Learners and 74,000 who attend Title I schools, which serve large populations of low-income students. Without the maturity and skills a year of transitional kindergarten would help them to develop, they will often be behind from the start. Furthermore, high-quality early childhood programs are also critical for students who are still developing strong language skills in their native language, in addition to learning how to speak, read and write in English. Transitional kindergarten provides a language-rich environment and helps lay the foundation for learning to read.

Like Long Beach, communities across California have already recognized the benefits of this innovative reform. Our state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District, launched a pilot program this fall; when adopted districtwide, it will serve more than 11,000 4 year olds. Additionally, Palo Alto, Orange County, Sacramento, Fresno and other areas already offer their youngest learners an extra year of preparation before starting kindergarten.

SB 1381 and its creation of a transitional kindergarten will give parents an additional option to ensure their children enter kindergarten with the maturity and skills they need to excel. I hope the governor takes advantage of this historic opportunity so more of California’s children are ready to learn and ready to succeed.

Ashlee Tran works for Preschool California, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality early learning opportunities for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most.

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