Teacher’s petition may spark statewide change

09.02.2010 | Palo Alto Online | Chris Kenrick

A petition by some Palo Alto elementary school teachers is close to sparking major changes in schools throughout California.

Legislation requiring that kids turn 5 by Sept. 1 of the year they start kindergarten is on the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, awaiting signature.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who sponsored the Kindergarten Readiness Act at the behest of the local teachers, said today he is hopeful the governor will sign.

Under current law, children entering kindergarten must be 5 by Dec. 2. Simitian’s bill would phase in the birth-date change to Sept. 1 beginning in 2012. The law also promises “transitional kindergarten” classes for children born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

Statewide, about 100,000 children start kindergarten before their fifth birthday.

In Palo Alto, serving the late-birthday group no longer eligible for kindergarten could mean an expansion of the school district’s existing “Young Fives” program, which currently serves two classes of 22 children.

“It may be that based on the legislation and our own examination of the needs of our community that we may expand that program,” Superintendent Kevin Skelly said today.

Enactment of the bill also would “take some pressure off” higher-than-expected enrollment in Palo Alto’s elementary schools by shrinking the kindergarten classes that make their way through the elementary system for six years, Skelly said.

For budget reasons, Palo Alto recently retreated from a plan to re-open Garland, at 870 N. California Ave., as the district’s 13th elementary school.

But officials seemed surprised last week when early indications suggested a bumper crop of elementary students that may exceed even the high end of demographic projections. An official enrollment count for the 2010-2011 school year will be taken later this month.

Simitian credited the Palo Alto teachers — specifically Walter Hays kindergarten teacher Diana Argenti and district reading specialist Natalie Bivas — with prompting him to act.

“This is an issue with which I’ve long been familiar, and many people have worked on this,” he said.

“Had these two teachers not come in to my office with a petition signed by 289 of their peers, this is not an issue I’d likely have taken up again.”

Simitian said he had worked closely with the governor’s office on technical aspects of the legislation, that it has wide support from education and business groups and that there had been no organized opposition.

Bivas and Argenti approached Simitian in March 2009, saying that the ramped-up academics of today’s kindergarten were leaving many — particularly the younger children — behind.

“Most teacher don’t like to make waves — we stay in our classrooms and do the best we can,” Argenti said at the time.

“But I just wish the politicians could come out and spend a couple of days here.”

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