Some area districts ahead of the curve on new transitional kindergarten requirements

10.09.2012 | Daily Breeze | Rob Kuznia

 State Senator Rod Wright with Nicholas Salazar, left, and Lucy Brennan in regular kindergarten at Juan Cabrillo Elementary in Hawthorne. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

In Kelly Schumacher’s class at Cabrillo Elementary in west Hawthorne, it isn’t uncommon for students to sing songs as she strums a guitar, bake gingerbread cookies, or make Play-Doh from scratch.

Once upon a time, this might have been a kindergarten class, but with schools under increasing pressure to boost academic performance, kindergarten teachers have little time for such activities anymore.

Schumacher, whose school is located in the tiny Wiseburn School District, teaches transitional kindergarten, which serves students who just miss the cutoff age for kindergarten.

In most places, this is a new concept. As of this fall, all school districts in California are under orders to offer some form of transitional kindergarten, which must be available for students who turn 5 between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2. But Cabrillo Elementary has done it for a decade.

On Monday, a group of delegates visited the school to admire Cabrillo Elementary’s pioneering program. In some respects, it was an event more closely connected to statewide politics than local politics.

Organized by Preschool California – a nonprofit advocacy group with offices in the Bay Area and Los Angeles – the event was a thank you to Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, who played a key role in successfully fighting Brown’s recent attempt to block the implementation of transitional kindergarten.

“I think a lot of times the press paints the people in Sacramento as being detached from what’s going on in the community, and I salute Sen. Wright and all the hard work that he’s done on behalf of children,” said Wiseburn Superintendent Tom Johnstone during a brief speech for the small delegation. “He is a person that isn’t detached.”

The advocacy group chose Cabrillo Elementary because the school is located in Wright’s district and has a track record of success. But Wiseburn is hardly the only area school district to be ahead of its time on transitional kindergarten.

Torrance Unified, for instance, has had a similar program called “Preppy K” for 20 years. Long Beach Unified has had one for six years. The Los Angeles Unified School District this fall began its second year of transitional kindergarten.

Statewide, the program will be phased in over three years. While transitional kindergarten this year must be available to students who turn 5 between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2., next year the window expands to between Oct. 2 and Dec. 2. Full implementation happens in 2014-15, when eligible students turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

A mounting body of research indicates that the negative effects of jumping the gun on kindergarten can follow students into adulthood.

Johnstone said he experienced it firsthand with one of his own children, a July baby who struggled as a freshman in high school, and then struggled again as a freshman and sophomore in college. He has another child born in the fall who had the benefit of transitional kindergarten, and didn’t struggle similarly.

As for Cabrillo Elementary, its performance on test scores is remarkable, especially given the K-2 school’s demographics.

Last year, Cabrillo posted a sky-high 928 on the Academic Performance Index (API), a barometer measuring the performance of schools based on spring tests taken by students in grades 2-11. That’s close to the stratospheric 953 of Hermosa View, the other K-2 school in the area.

But while Hermosa View’s students tend to be white and wealthy, 60 percent of Cabrillo’s students are Latino and nearly half of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

Asked how much credit transitional kindergarten deserves for this distinction, Cabrillo Principal Margaret Lynch was a little cagey.

“I think it’s one of the many things we do in Wiseburn to be aware of students, and to meet individual needs,” she said. “The TK (transitional kindergarten) helps give students extra time.”

Meanwhile, although offering transitional-kindergarten programs is now a requirement for school districts, enrolling children in the programs is optional for parents – just as enrolling students for kindergarten is optional.

Taking transitional kindergarten essentially means a child will experience kindergarten in two parts over two years – the first focused on social or motor development, the second on more academic skills such as learning to read.

“We would say that high-quality preschool looks a lot like transitional kindergarten,” said Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California.

The sticking point for transitional kindergarten is that it means the state is on the hook for 14 years of some people’s education rather than 13. Based partly on this rationale – as well as a reluctance to begin a new K-12 program at a time of extreme budget duress – Gov. Jerry Brown this past spring proposed cutting the soon-to-begin transitional kindergarten requirement, insisting that it would save $150 million.

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