Schools gear up for pre-kindergarten classes

10.25.2011 | Press Democrat | Kerry Benefield

Many things in Lisl Christie’s classroom at San Miguel Elementary School look just as they would in a typical kindergarten room.

There’s a map of the United States, a calendar showing the month and days of the week, numerals up to 40 pinned near the ceiling and an array of pumpkin drawings done by the students tacked near the door.

But the chart where all students’ birthdays are posted reveals that 16 of the 18 have birthdays that fall in the months of September, October and November.

That means Christie’s classroom isn’t a standard kindergarten class at all. It’s Mark West District’s KinderStart program designed primarily to serve students whose birthdays currently fall in the last three months of California’s kindergarten enrollment window.

It’s a class for the youngest of potential kindergartners, those who just may not be ready for that first big step into formal education.

“There are perfectly well-developed children who are just not ready for the kind of schooling that is happening more and more in kindergarten,” said Nancy Brownell, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Sonoma County Office of Education. “They will get there, but they need a bit more time to get there.”

Mark West, along with the Healdsburg and Windsor districts, have been running transitional kindergarten programs for so-called “Young Fives” for years.

This fall, schools and districts across California will be required to offer a transitional kindergarten program to students whose birthdays push against the current Dec. 2 enrollment cutoff date.

The new law, signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, rolls back the kindergarten cutoff by one month per year beginning next fall until all students in kindergarten will have turned 5 by Sept. 1.

Prior to the signing, California had the fourth-latest cutoff date in the nation. The change in cutoff dates will narrows the span of ages in California kindergarten classes, where students who are well past their 6th birthday can be seated next to 4-year-olds.

The law also requires districts to offer students whose birthday fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 a transitional kindergarten program before those students take on traditional kindergarten the following year.

Educators are hailing the move as a boon for academic readiness.

“I think this is probably the closest thing to universal preschool that we are ever going to get in California,” said Gail Eagan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Santa Rosa City Schools. “It gives them a good, strong foundation before they enter into those academic years.”

While being celebrated as a benefit for students’ long term school success, many are left wondering what the program will look like and how it will be funded.

Santa Rosa City School Board members tonight are set to discuss spending $22,600 on a part-time curriculum resource assistant to develop curriculum for their program.

Pupils enrolled in the transitional kindergarten program will bring in state revenue just like other elementary students. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the law could cost between $700 million and $900 million annually when the original smaller kindergarten class graduates from high school.

At that point, the state will have committed to extending public education from 13 years to 14.

Eagan said Santa Rosa has sought advice from the state on whether the district can abandon the gradual rollout and begin this fall offering transitional kindergarten for all students who turn five between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

In Santa Rosa, if only those students with November birthdays are included in the first year of the program, some schools will have only four or five students who qualify, while larger campuses might have nine or 10, Eagan said.

“In terms of pulling this off, the amount of work that has to be done to prepare for five to 10 kids is the same amount of work that has to be done for 30,” she said.

The curriculum that will be taught in transitional kindergarten is largely being left up to individual districts.

Districts have flexibility in whether they offer transitional kindergarten within a traditional kindergarten classroom, whether they allow students whose birthdays fall outside of the three-month window to enroll and what skills students need to master before moving on to standard kindergarten.

“It’s very open-ended in terms of a law,” said Brownell, a supporter of the program.

Some smaller districts likely will be forced to place the transitional students within the regular kindergarten class because so few kids will fall within the age window.

The Sonoma County Office of Education has been hosting regular forums for district officials and teachers to ready themselves for the new program.

Communication with parents about who is eligible and who might most benefit is key, Brownell said.

“Ultimately, the goal of the program is to both provide for young fives an opportunity, and for their parents to know, through no fault of anybody’s, some kids are just developmentally needing more time to get ready to be successful in school,” she said.

At San Miguel, educators said the emphasis is less on academics than how to develop skills to become successful in school.

Christie said she keeps her more academic lessons quick, maybe five minutes, to accommodate students who have “this short of an attention span,” she said, holding her fingers about an inch apart.

Students in Christie’s class spend a good deal of time focusing on impulse control, social skills, direction-following and some fine motor skills.

“Kindergarten is what first grade used to be 20 years ago,” said Christie, a veteran instructor who has taught all of the primary grades. Some students are not quite ready for the academic demands of kindergarten that now have students counting to 100, writing and, in some cases, reading by the time they head into first grade.

Christie describes one key social issue as “impulse control.”

“Impulse control means you really, really want to yell out your answer but you need to raise your hand,” she said.

Minutes later, during circle time, one boy pressed a finger repeatedly against his neighbor’s cheek before being swatted away. He then began to pull the same neighbor’s jacket from his lap before the two boys were quietly moved to different areas of the colorful rug.

There are skills that kids need to learn before they are free to master academic foundations, Christie said.

Mark West Superintendent Ron Calloway said the district has developed no formula for judging the program’s success, but said he has to look no farther than his own dinner table to deem the program valuable.

His son, an October-baby now thriving in seventh grade, was enrolled in the Mark West program the first year it was offered, nine years ago.

“Both my wife and I, she is a teacher as well, knew he would have made it, but he would have been on the bottom rung, he would have struggled,” he said. “You look at it from that perspective: ‘Let’s give him the gift of time.’”

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