Transitional kindergarten program to add more schools

08.01.2012 | Mountain Democrat

El Dorado County school districts will be trying out a “new” kindergarten this fall.

It’s called “transitional kindergarten,” commonly called just “TK.” It will be in addition to the traditional kindergarten classes — outlined under a 2011 mandate of the state Legislature that narrowly survived a threatened cut in the state’s budget revision in May.

For some elementary districts in the county, such as Rescue, Buckeye, Gold Trail, Placerville, and Lake Tahoe, the program will not be new at all. For example, in Rescue it will be entering its third year with enthusiastic reviews.

Those affected are 5-year-old children born after Sept. 1, the so-called “young fives” who historically have had the hardest time keeping up with regular kindergarten regimens as they evolved over the years. Statewide, there are an estimated 125,000 young fives. About 25 percent of kindergartners fit the “young fives” category.

TK will provide a half-step between preschool and regular kindergarten, allowing the young fives to catch up both physically and academically, according to Jeremy Meyers, deputy superintendent with the El Dorado County Office of Education.

Most districts already are offering “junior Ks” or “preparatory Ks” for youngsters deemed individually to not be ready for regular kindergarten, but the TK mandate eventually will apply to virtually all the younger fives, allowing for two years of kindergarten, he said.

Meyers reported extensive studies have shown that benefits of the catch-up time last throughout elementary and middle school years, and for some even into senior high school.

There is a three-year phase-in period, starting with children born after Nov. 1 this fall, then after Oct. 1 next year and finally after Sept. 1 in the following year.

Meyers said costs of the program will be negligible, if any. There is flexibility in how districts approach TK, such as a provision that would allow smaller districts to have combination TK and regular classes. That creates a challenge for the teachers in how to separate the children appropriately, and staff development is under way on how that can be achieved, Meyers said.

Reduced referrals to special education and counseling programs could even produce a net savings overall, he said.

Meyers’ optimism about TK contrasts with the distress he and other education officials statewide feel relating to state budget cutbacks in all levels of education. But Meyers said the 10 percent reduction in state preschool funding and changes in income eligibility, with preschool subsidies cut by 20 percent, are of particular concern due to the lasting benefits of preschool programs.

“We are robbing Peter to pay Paul on so many fronts,” Meyers said of overall educational funding. “TK is a positive example of how to do things better that will offset some of the other cutbacks,” he said.

One early adopter of TK is the Rescue Union School District, with approximately 4,000 students. Teachers and administrators there are sold on the program.

“We believe it is one of the most effective programs of any education reform in many, many years,” Rescue Superintendent David Swart said of the program — which will begin its third year this fall with four classes.

Even in two years, Swart said benefits are clear. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he said. ”The money we have to ‘fix’ kids can be saved by giving the kids a strong start,” Swart said.

Teacher feedback has been enthusiastic.

“We were very lucky. Our teachers were very excited and there was a seamless transition with people who wanted to do it,” he said.

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