Opinion: Adding a new grade level for 'young fives' challenges districts

Kindergarteners at La Jolla Elementary school. Photo: Stephen Simpson
Kindergarteners at La Jolla Elementary school. Photo: Stephen Simpson

By Marsha Sutton


The recent passage of the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 has greater implications than simply advancing the date by which children must turn 5 years old to enter kindergarten. It also means a mandate for school districts throughout the state to develop and implement a transitional kindergarten program for children with fall birthdays who will be too young to start kindergarten once the law kicks in.

Current California law states that children must turn 5 by Dec. 2 to start kindergarten that fall. This means that 4-year-old children with birthdays in September, October and November can enter kindergarten — and are often enrolled in classes with kids who are 5, 6 or even 7 years old.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1381, advances the date by which children must turn 5 by one month per year for three years, beginning in 2012, when the cutoff date will be Nov. 1. In 2013, the date will be Oct. 1. And in 2014, the date by which children must be 5 to enter kindergarten will be Sept. 1, where it will remain.

Roundly applauded, this change has been sought for years by teachers, administrators, school boards, legislators, parents and related statewide organizations and agencies, who all contend that younger kindergartners are more likely to struggle academically and socially and have higher rates of kindergarten retention.

However, a component of this legislation adds complexity to the straightforward nature of the original intent. Because SB-1381 also requires that a transitional kindergarten program be established beginning in the year 2012 for 4-year-old children with fall birthdays, questions and confusion are emerging. The devil is in the details on this provision.

Without thinking too long and hard about this, obvious questions — about costs, funding, curriculum, teacher qualifications, classroom space and enrollment details — come to mind:

  • In 2012, will the program only be open to children turning 5 in November? Or can children turning 5 in Oct. or Sept. enroll?
  • In 2013, will the program only be open for children turning 5 in Oct. or Nov.? Or can children with Sept. birthdays enroll?
  • Can parents who want to hold their summer birthday children back a year enroll them in transitional kindergarten?
  • How will districts meet the need for more specialized certificated teachers and more classroom space?
  • Since kindergarten is not mandatory in California, how will transitional kindergarten work?
  • Is there a state-approved transitional kindergarten curriculum?
  • Adding an entirely new grade level will cost districts to evaluate and purchase materials and curriculum. Is there money for that?
  • Some say transitional kindergarten is mandated in the new law for 15 years (essentially permanent) so that certificated teachers can be assured of long-term employment. Will districts have the option of terminating the program after 15 years?
  • The program, said to be “cost-neutral,” is estimated to save $700 million annually — or $9.1 billion in cumulative savings over the 13 years it will take as a smaller kindergarten cohort transitions through the K-12 system. Is this enough money to cover the cost for districts to implement the program?
  • Can the money for this program be diverted by the legislature at any time?
  • What are the chances that this will become another unfunded mandate?

Waiting for answers

“Right now we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” said Debbie Beldock, senior director of district and school improvement at the San Diego County Office of Education.

Beldock is coordinating meetings with all San Diego County school districts’ curriculum and instruction leaders to sort through some of the questions and specifics of the transitional kindergarten aspect of the bill, few of which are clearly understood at this point, she said.

“Kindergarten’s not mandatory, so there’s a whole piece of this that’s just so odd,” she said. “So we’re just trying to get our heads around it.”

Sid Salazar, San Diego Unified School District’s assistant superintendent for instructional support services, said he is part of Beldock’s group that’s trying to gather reliable information on the bill. He and his staff, particularly SDUSD child development director Sylvia Gonzalez, plan to prepare a proposal for the school board to review, but there are still many unknowns.

“That is the difficulty in trying to draft something up right now, because information is still coming in and interpretation of the current information sometimes varies depending upon who you ask,” Salazar said.

Once basic questions have been answered, Salazar said a draft proposal on how best to implement transitional kindergarten will be shared with the district’s area superintendents for feedback on how the program should work in their particular areas to address the specific concerns of their communities. Then principals will be brought into the conversation, and a revised proposal will come to the school board by June, he said.

Each cluster will have its own needs, so a standardized program may not be imposed district-wide, Salazar said, as long as the Calif. Dept. of Education allows for that flexibility. “It would depend upon what leeway we have with CDE,” he said.

For example, affluent areas of the district where young children are often held back a year will view transitional kindergarten differently than will lower-income areas where 4-year-olds with little or no preschool experience commonly enroll in kindergarten.

In the La Jolla cluster, parents who hold their late-birthday children back a year may now choose to enroll those children in the district’s transitional kindergarten classes rather than pay for another year of preschool or private school.

“That’s definitely a possibility,” Salazar said.

Donna Tripi, principal of La Jolla Elementary School, confirmed that her school gets very few 4-year-olds entering kindergarten. “For the most part our kids come in with two or three years of preschool, and many [are] being held back a year if they have fall birthdays,” she said. “I’m seeing even those with summer birthdays holding back.”

Enrollment is about 620 at La Jolla Elementary, which serves students in kindergarten through 5th grades. The school, located in the village, also houses the Gifted and Talented Education program for all three La Jolla elementary schools in the cluster.

An influx of kids

Children from poor families typically cannot afford private preschool, making parents reluctant to keep their fall-birthday kids home for another year of zero educational exposure. So kindergarten becomes their first classroom experience, despite studies showing that children who start kindergarten at a younger age often fall behind in social and academic development.

The intent of the legislation works better for communities serving families in poverty, because these kids would be entering kindergarten anyway. So the money used for them in kindergarten can be diverted to a transitional kindergarten program, which provides them with two years of preparation for first grade and improves their chances for academic success by reducing the likelihood of having to repeat kindergarten.

Transitional kindergarten “is especially important for low-income and English language learner children, who often receive less academic preparation,” according to a fact sheet prepared by the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Joe Simitian.

But for higher-income communities, schools may see an influx of students for transitional kindergarten who would normally have enrolled in another year of private preschool.

No one is certain yet which students will qualify for the transitional kindergarten program, except for those turning 5 in Nov. of 2012, those turning 5 in Oct. and Nov. 2013, and those turning 5 in Sept., Oct. and Nov. in 2014 and beyond. Whether students with birthdays outside those months will be allowed to enroll is an unanswered question.

Tripi, who has had no district communication yet on the issue, said it is possible that a transitional kindergarten program in La Jolla would attract many more kids than would otherwise enroll. “We would definitely have the kids, because parents … would rather have them start where they’re going to go,” she said.

Economic considerations may also be a factor for parents attracted to a free transitional kindergarten program provided through public education rather than paying for another year of preschool.

Tripi said the economic downturn has led to increased enrollment in public schools even in affluent areas like La Jolla. “It’s hit everyone, not just certain areas of the city,” she said. “I think parents are seeing [that they] can go to an excellent neighborhood school that’s public and free, or pay for elementary education and it may not even be as good.”

According to the new legislation, the state will pay per-pupil through Average Daily Attendance for each student enrolling in transitional kindergarten at the same level it pays for all other students.

Salazar is hopeful that the state ADA money will cover costs to implement the new program. “If it’s ADA-driven, it should be cost-neutral at the very least,” he said. But a small class might not cover the costs to provide a certificated teacher, curriculum supplies, facility space and related expenses. “That will depend upon the attendance of the children,” he said.

San Diego County’s Beldock was unsure whether the money would cover costs. “It may always cost us more to educate our children than what we get from ADA,” she said. “That’s just going to always be something we struggle with.”

Cluster involvement

Beldock said another focus of her regular meetings with curriculum leaders is to discuss the selection and design of a transitional kindergarten curriculum program.

“We’re just at the very beginning stages of figuring out what it is we might want to do countywide,” she said. “We know that we want it to be different than 4-year-old preschool.”

Beldock said the group is evaluating some of the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten readiness programs already in existence in some of the county’s school districts, including San Diego Unified where elementary schools in some parts of the district currently offer early childhood education programs that bridge the gap between preschool and kindergarten.

Leslie Fausset, Solana Beach School District superintendent and former interim superintendent for the San Diego Unified School District, supports the legislation, calling it “an exciting opportunity.”

Speaking of children in poverty, Fausset said, “We know they start kindergarten behind because they haven’t had the exposure that children who come from affluence have had.” She said moving the cutoff date back without providing a transitional program for these fall-birthday children “isn’t helpful for them and would have been a step back.”

Fausset said kindergarten teachers have said for years that “fall babies, particularly little boys, have really struggled.” Even children who are intellectually and developmentally ready but are not mature or emotionally prepared can find kindergarten a challenge, she said.

“I always say that there’s no readiness checklist in the sky,” Tripi said. “It’s really when you’re ready to learn [and when] you’re going to have an interest in learning. So it’s not really that you have to have X number of letters and sounds.”

Kids don’t even have to sit still, she said, speaking of active young boys. Tripi said it has more to do with whether children are interested in learning, are able to learn, and have the necessary social skills.

“They all get there,” Tripi said. “It’s just that some are more ready than others to start.”

How San Diego Unified approaches this mandate and how much freedom the district gives to clusters to design a program best-suited to each cluster’s unique needs may be the first major test in the district’s new, community-focused approach to education.

For the La Jolla Cluster Association, the challenge with this provision in the new bill is that it was not designed for affluent communities. How will this fledgling group provide the mandated program, and what will it look like? Will the cluster be given the freedom by the school board to design a transitional kindergarten that meets its distinct needs?

This sweeping directive – asking districts to provide an entirely new grade level for a new group of students – represents a significant change in public education that’s received near universal support. But it may be an example of good motives on paper weighted down by unintended consequences at implementation.

As the list of unknowns grows, so do worries of how, in less than two years, a program of this scope and magnitude will be delivered.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at:





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