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State’s largest districts moving to stand-alone classes for transitional kindergarten

04.24.2016 | EdSource | Susan Frey

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Two years after three-quarters of the state’s largest school districts combined classes for transitional kindergarten and kindergarten, most districts are now creating separate classes for the younger children.

An EdSource survey of the 30 largest districts in California with elementary school students found that, whenever possible, most districts are creating separate classes for transitional kindergartners, those 4-year-olds whose fall birthdays miss the cutoff date for kindergarten. Half of the districts are offering only stand-alone classes for transitional kindergartners, and most of the remaining districts have more stand-alone than mixed classes. Only two of the 30 districts rely primarily on mixed classes.

In 2013-14, 78 percent of all classes for transitional kindergartners in California were mixed classes, according to data from the California Department of Education.

“We try to avoid combination classes,” said Craig Wells, assistant superintendent of human resources at Stockton Unified, which had only one mixed class this school year. “That’s not the intent of transitional kindergarten.”

First implemented in 2012-13, transitional kindergarten is supposed to give students who were previously eligible for kindergarten an extra year to adjust to school and experience a less academically oriented curriculum. The program was phased in over three years after legislators pushed back the cutoff birthdate for kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1, meaning children must turn 5 by Sept. 1 to enroll in kindergarten.

The initial implementation of the program with large numbers of combination classes caused confusion for some teachers and parents. Kindergarten teachers had essentially the same set of students, but now they were supposed to provide a different curriculum for the students who were 4 years old. Meanwhile, some parents were concerned that their children were repeating kindergarten when they were in combination classes two years in a row.

The districts that offer only stand-alone classes typically do not have a class at every school, but instead offer transitional kindergarten in one school in each neighborhood.

“Transitional kindergarten is an official grade level in San Francisco Unified,” said Heidi Anderson, public relations manager for the district. “We have 22 classes located at several schools throughout the city. There are no combination classes.”

Elk Grove Unified and Fremont Unified spokespersons  emphasized the need for separate classes to support the transitional kindergarten curriculum.

“We don’t do combination classes to ensure that transitional kindergartners receive age-appropriate instruction,” said Xanthi Pinkerton, director of communications for Elk Grove.

At Fremont, all transitional kindergarten classes use the same curriculum and all teachers meet once a month to collaborate, said Brian Killgore, public information officer for the district. “Assessments for all classes are the same, and the focus centers on social-emotional development.”

The state’s largest district – Los Angeles Unified – has chosen to provide transitional kindergarten at every school, but because of its size, the district is able to offer 75 percent of the classes as stand-alone classes.

Of the 30 districts surveyed, only two districts – Clovis Unified and Santa Ana Unified – rely primarily on mixed classes.

Like L.A. Unified, Clovis offers transitional kindergarten at every school. But the students eligible for transitional kindergarten “are spread thinly across the entire district’s attendance area,” so the classes are mixed, said Kelly Avants, chief communications officer. “We do not think it is ideal to transport young students from different areas to combine classes among schools.”

At Santa Ana, the transitional kindergarten students are clustered together in groups of 15 in classes with kindergartners, said Deidra Powell, chief communications officer for the district.

But the district does not consider the classes combination classes, she said, because the teacher does not teach a separate curriculum for each group of students. Instead, teachers rely on a digital curriculum that adapts to each student’s academic level, Powell said.

The 30 largest districts – each enrolls more than 30,000 students – have more flexibility to offer stand-alone classes because they are more likely to have enough transitional kindergartners to fill up a class. The American Institutes for Research is compiling statewide data – expected to be released at the end of April – on what percentage of transitional kindergarten classes in California are stand-alone classes.

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