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Summer’s over for many Bay Area kids

08.16.2012 | San Jose Mercury News | Sharon Noguchi

It was a day for jumping out of bed and exclaiming to the family: “Finally, it’s the first day of school.”

That’s how 5-year-old Sophia Rodarte started her morning. School opened Thursday in the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill school districts, and thousands of excited elementary students and dragging high schoolers met teachers and reunited with classmates. School began earlier this week in Mountain View-Los Altos and San Mateo high school districts, and in San Jose’s Evergreen and East Side Union High School districts.

Most other public districts in Santa Clara County begin next week, although classrooms don’t open until the last week in August in San Jose’s Berryessa and Orchard school districts.

The back-to-schoolers include thousands of 4-year-olds enrolled in California’s newest grade: transitional kindergarten, which prepares them for school.

Among the new TKers, as they’re known, Anitra Jack was busy making a “chocolate cake” out of shredded bark in the play area with new friends Sarina Shah and Suzie Mondragon at Greendell School in Palo Alto. Anitra’s mother, Amelia Jack, said her daughter, who attended private preschool, was “more than ready” for regular kindergarten.

Until the law changed this year, Anitra could have started in kindergarten this month. But now students must turn 5 by Oct. 31, and the state has ordered schools to offer the kindergarten-prep class for children with November and early December birthdays.

Likewise, Tze-Huey Li said her son, Benjamin Yang, was ready for kindergarten. He didn’t attend preschool, but he reads in both English and Chinese, copies song lyrics and has learned a few words in Korean and Japanese.

Greendell’s transitional kindergartners are integrated into its Young Fives program, which is also designed to help students prepare socially, emotionally and academically for kindergarten the following year. For many of the brand-new transitional kindergarten programs around the state, Palo Alto’s Young Fives has served as the template. Director Sharon Keplinger has traveled statewide talking about the pioneering program, started in 1975.

Educators are zeroing in on school preparedness because California’s kindergarten curriculum increasingly focuses on academics and achievement. Youngsters who can’t yet sit still, can’t manipulate scissors or haven’t learned to play well with others will benefit in the long run by starting in a kindergarten-readiness class, experts say.

So at Young Fives/Transitional Kindergarten, classrooms feature attractions that many kindergarten classes now forsake: easels for painting, sand boxes and a large carpeted corner for blocks and doll houses.

Children learn through play and learn to share, teacher Lisa Wright said. Much of the day is spent doing what kindergartners used to do. And on a campus that houses 400 children from newborns through pre-kindergartners, including special-education preschoolers, the Young Five students get to be the big kids on campus.

It’s teaching kids what many educators recognize: that success in school depends on kids being ready to learn.

Divya Jindal said she probably would have held back her son, who has a November birthday, even without the change in the cutoff date. First, she likes being in step with most of the rest of the country, which requires children to have turned 5 when starting school. That’s the direction California will progressively move — next year the cutoff for birthdays moves to Sept. 30, and the year after to Aug. 31.

But Jindal is looking far beyond kindergarten.

“Boys are better off being a little more mature in middle and high school,” she said, for competition not only in academics, but in sports and other areas.

“Kids can always catch up academically,” she said. What they need to learn is “all the other social stuff in school.”

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