Youngest students thrive with a boost before kindergarten

01.10.2014 | The Modesto Bee | Nan Austin

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WATERFORD — Look around a class of barely 5-year-olds and some basics stand out. They’re squirmy. They tend to blurt, volunteering things like “My dog eats pizza” – naturally assuming you’d want to know.

A class of transitional kindergartners gravitates toward the floor, sprawling on tummies. Walk next door and the slightly older, regular kindergarten class will be sitting “crisscross applesauce,” straight up.

By January, kindergartners are working on reading, “My dog eats pizza.” By year’s end, they will be expected to write it, complete with a capital on the first word and period after the last.

That, in a nutshell, describes the two-stage kindergarten progression open to fall-birthday 4-year-olds, a quarter of  all kids. Parents can also request the placement for slightly older kids who need a little growing-up time to master sitting-still time.

Roughly 120,000 children turning 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2 will be eligible statewide for transitional kindergarten next year. A bill proposed by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, would expand the program to all 4-year-olds by 2019-20.

The expansion would cost an estimated $200 million next year and $990 million a year when fully implemented, called “wise spending” by Steinberg. But Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for 2014-15 does not include it.

Districts were required to offer the transitional onramp to kindergarten two years ago, offsetting the rollback of the cutoff birth date for kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 over three years.

“It’s essentially a new grade level for California,” said Dede Baker, director of elementary education for the Stanislaus County Office of Education. The mandate came with attendance funding, but no money for a play-based curriculum.

“Schools had to go back to what they had. ‘Where do we have those blocks and playhouse equipment stored?’ A lot of those types of things dropped out of kindergarten,” she said.

Districts implemented programs based on  the number of students they had in that quarter-of-one-age group. Some schools have separate classes, while others fold 4-year-olds into a kindergarten-combo class.  Modesto City Schools offers separate classes, but not at all campuses.

Parents were skeptical of the voluntary program initially, she added. After all, whose kid can’t pass kindergarten?

“At first, there was some apprehension. But as time goes on and parents see the power of the program, that’s changing,” Baker said.

She worked with districts as they put programs in place. She holds networking sessions for transitional kindergarten teachers, who find the program’s whole-child approach fills a real need for the youngest students.

“They say it’s wonderful to be able to balance the academic program with social and emotional needs. They have time to incorporate more art and music,” she said. “The ability to learn through play – it’s very, very positive. It would be fabulous if it was available for more children.”

Waterford and Denair districts joined the first wave trying transitional kindergarten, among the 4 percent of California districts that offered it a year before the requirement kicked in.

In Waterford, a mix including about 40 percent English learners and 80 percent low-income students meant many kids were starting kindergarten a step behind, and district leaders seized the chance to change that.

“We know our population,” Moon Elementary Principal Steve Kuykendall said. Two years of results show kids averaging 13 months’ growth in vocabulary over the 9-month school year, he said.

Kept together for their second-phase kindergarten year, the transitional group ended testing mostly at or above grade level. “Regular kindergarten, I wouldn’t see that,” Kuykendall said.

Now mixed into first-grade classes with the one-year kindergarten kids, the former transitional students have kept ahead of the curve, Kuykendall said.

“Those students are the leaders,” he said, having benefited from an academic edge and age. These November birthday students are now the oldest kids in their grade instead of the youngest.

“It’s a world of difference,” said teacher Kathy Kuehl, who taught first grade for most of her 30 years at the front of the class. Kuehl teaches transitional kindergarten, but last year taught those prepped students in a faster-moving kindergarten.

“They were settled. They were ready to go. They were ready to learn,” she said. “They came in mid to high for regular kindergarten and they advanced quickly.”

She hears good things from first-grade teachers with kids from that first transitional group in their classes. “They especially notice the writing. We do a lot of work on fine motor skills. The writing is clearer and they have a larger vocabulary,” Kuehl said.

In her transitional class, she breaks up the day. “We take short breaks. There’s a lot of hands-on. We use lots of music and art to teach the concepts,” she said. “Our whole day is language – read aloud, stories and puppets. That’s the great thing. You have time for kids to talk to each other.”

“We’re still working toward kindergarten goals – letters and sounds – but there’s less push. That’s the big thing: less pressure,” said transitional class teacher Shelli LaMunyon. Moon Elementary has two so-called TK classes, both with an aide. “We have faster, shorter lessons. High interest, fast-paced – that’s the ticket for our kids,” LaMunyon said.

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