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Transitional kindergarten allows time for kids to ‘grow up’

02.12.2012 | Modesto Bee | Nan Austin

Kindergartners in Shelli LaMunyon’s class play with blocks,
color and sing songs. They sprawl on the floor to play board games and
take time to talk out squabbles over sharing.

A few doors down,
kindergartners in Maria Tillery’s class stand straighter and sit longer.
They readily rotate between tables, read short books independently and
do their math problems with pencil and paper.

The difference:
LaMunyon teaches “transitional kindergarten,” the program for younger
youngsters not quite ready to buckle down to academics.

To make sure kids are ready for school, the state is gradually
shifting the birthday cutoff date so nearly all kindergartners are 5
years old when school starts. The same law created a kindergarten-prep
year for fall-birthday kids. The two-year kindergarten is meant to
ensure these so-called young 5s start first grade ahead of the curve
instead of behind.

LaMunyon and Tillery teach at Moon Primary
School in Waterford. Moon, Marshall Elementary in Modesto and Denair
Elementary are piloting transitional-kindergarten classes this year.
Every school district was expected to start such programs next year, but
budget problems have put some plans on hold.

The 19 kids in
LaMunyon’s class on average tested 1½ years below grade level when they
started school in August, Moon Principal Steve Kuykendall said. But by
the time the last-day bell sounds May 25, these budding scholars will be
ready to roll into kindergarten.

They’re already assessing
higher than expected, Kuykendall said. But proof of the program’s
effectiveness will be seen in the state tests they face starting three
years from now.

The premise and the promise of transitional
kindergarten rests on strong foundations, said Zona Baker, director of
curriculum and instruction for the Stanislaus County Office of
Education.

“We all know a date on a calendar doesn’t mean a thing
as far as a child’s development,” said Baker, who organizes training on
transitional kindergarten for school district planners.

In
LaMunyon’s class, little fingers are working iPads and practicing
cutting with scissors. Sorting, sequencing and picking a paper by saying
its color all slyly slip in key academic points.

A 22-year
veteran of leading kindergartners, LaMunyon said this allows a slower
pace without the pressure to get every child reading and writing.

“Basically we’re working to kindergarten standards, but we’re doing it in a more (hands-on) active way,” she said.

Her
class sings, acts out poetry and performs plays for parents. A reading
lesson puts the story to music. A picnic with teddy bears serves up a
lesson on manners.

Empathy factors into the lesson plan as well as numbers, and math looks like a board game, not a worksheet.

“There’s
a lot of talking, a lot of sharing about their weekend. Everybody gets a
chance to talk,” LaMunyon said. She said that time especially pays off
for English learners, who make up 4 out of 10 students at Moon.

At
Marshall Elementary, where 7 in 10 students are English learners, Lynne
Premi’s transitional kindergarten students also reap the benefits of
more time spent chatting. Premi said her students now often speak
English, even while playing at recess.

Students coming into her class needed to learn to share, wait their turn and clean up after themselves.

In
the large, sunshine-flooded classroom, Premi leads her class through
10-minute sessions on a striped carpet. Doing a counting-to-10 lesson,
kids face a wall of bright windows. They turn toward a side wall for a
musical-reading lesson. Reciting the alphabet shifts the class focus
toward a corner.

Regular kindergartners sit still for half an hour. The younger class strives for 15 minutes.

In
Denair, teacher Lori Cole said she was perplexed when her
transitional-kindergarten class ignored commands to stand up or sit
down.

“Then I realized, they had no idea that they are part of everybody,” Cole said with a laugh.

It started another class discussion of what kindergartners are expected to walk in knowing, she said.

“Think
back to kindergarten and you probably remember nap time and play time,”
Cole said. “Now they need to know how to read, and many of them can.
But here, it’s not just about learning to read.”

She works on posture, finger skills, standing in line, walking through a group.

Cole also gives time for chatter.

“While
we’re building with blocks, we’re talking about size, colors, shapes,
the way things work together. We think out loud,” she said.

She also gives short lectures, but spends more time listening.

“I just feel like I know my kids better because I have time to listen to their stories,” Cole said.

This
year, her group would all have qualified in age for regular
kindergarten, but she said the class feels distinctly different from the
three regular classes.

“If we were to line the four classes up,
you would see they’re smaller. They’re a little puffier with baby fat,”
Cole said. “Even if they’re tall, there’s just something softer about
them.”

At that age, every month is a milestone.

“It’s giving these kids a year for them to grow up. It doesn’t take much for that to be a great thing,” Cole said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339.

Original source and photos here.

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