Transitional Kindergarten Facing the Ax under Brown’s Proposal

 Transitional Kindergarten Facing the Ax under Brown’s Proposal

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Traditionally, the New Year brings resolutions to accomplish a variety of tasks, but due to California’s budget woes, this new year starts with bad news in the early childhood education realm. A new pre-kindergarten program supposed to take off this coming November is in danger of being gutted before it can be fully implemented.

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown proposed eliminating funding for Transitional Kindergarten – a one-year pre-kindergarten program mandated by SB 1381 – to save $223.7 million dollars, which would support existing education programs for the school year 2012-2013. SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, is legislation passed in the fall of 2010 to move the kindergarten admission deadline from December to September.

Currently, children are allowed to enroll in kindergarten when school starts in September so long as they turn 5 by Dec. 2 of the same year. But under the Kindergarten Readiness Act, children who enter kindergarten in September must turn 5 by Nov. 1 in the fall of 2012. The cut-off date will then gradually move to October 1 in Fall 2013 and September 1 in Fall 2014, where it stays.

Kids who are affected by the change, meaning children who were born in the last quarter of the calendar year, can join the Transitional Kindergarten program on a volunteer basis to prepare themselves for regular kindergarten for the next year.

Every school district with elementary schools in California is mandated to offer the program, using the funds they saved from reducing the head counts in regular kindergarten classes due to a delayed cut-off date.

According to the Governor’s proposed budget, eliminating the programs would save close to $700 million by the year 2014-15, the date the program would be fully implemented.

But education advocates say that is unacceptable.

Preschool California, an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates increased access to early learning for children in California, as well as a co-sponsor of SB 1381, criticized Brown’s decision as “kicking 125,000 students out of kindergarten.” They said in a statement in response to the Governor’s budget proposal that the elimination of the program will cause one-fourth of kindergarten-age students to lose one critical year of schooling, which will also force parents to scramble for child care or stop working entirely.

In fact, several school districts in California have already piloted the Transitional Kindergarten program by reallocating their own funding.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of them. The district jumpstarted the pilot program back in 2010-2011 in 36 elementary schools, and expanded the program to 83 classrooms this school year. Principal Bettye Johnson at Western Avenue Elementary School, a school serving predominantly Latino and African American kids, volunteered for the program because she felt such a school readiness program is much needed in her student population.

Johnson, a 30-year educator with the district, said what Transitional Kindergarten provides is what parents in more affluent areas have been doing: intentionally keep their young children from entering kindergarten until they are better prepared, which will avoid the possibility of being bullied due to size or maturity level, as well as to get them more prepared to learn.

“In our community, it’s been just the opposite,” said Johnson, who noticed for a long time many parents in her school’s community pushed their kids into kindergarten even if they were not ready, without paying attention to the obvious developmental differences between a child born in January and another child born in November.

“By the time the November child is born, that January child is walking, eating solid food, probably saying a couple of words, teething,” said Johnson. “Yet, when school starts, we put this November child in the same class with the January child and expect them to perform equally if not better.”

Western Avenue’s Transitional Kindergarten teacher Shawn Hacker cannot agree more. Being a kindergarten teacher for the past eight years, Hacker said the program supports children who may not have had any form of early education.

“In our community, a lot of kids have not gone to pre-school – they’ve been home or with babysitters or at daycare where they didn’t get a learning foundation,” said Hacker.

In fact, according to the early learning data provided by the American Institutes for Research, in 2010, out of the 300,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County, only 23.5 percent are in publicly contracted programs, 9.61 percent in Head Start, and 13.8 percent in state preschool, which totally served less than half of the preschool-aged children population, leaving many who could not afford private preschool up in the air. Many of those children came from low-income Latino and African American communities.

But in Hacker’s eyes, the program at least provides these kids a steppingstone and with that, they can fly. “My kids from last year, they’re all [currently] at the top of their class, and I’m sure they’ll stay that way for the rest of their careers. So to me, it equals success,” she said.

However, those who are skeptical about the program said it should be eliminated without having children being held back or “do kindergarten twice.”

“Saying that it’s doing over again, that’s not the case,” said Rayna Elijah, whose daughter, Lauren, was in Hacker’s transitional kindergarten classroom in 2010. She is now in regular kindergarten, learning fast.

Born in December, among the youngest of the year, Elijah said Lauren was a cry baby and was really shy, but her growth in intellectual ability and maturity was so obvious after being given a chance to be with other kids her age and learn at the same level. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, as far as my daughter is concerned,” said Elijah.

But, the Governor’s proposal left many questions unanswered, especially for districts like LAUSD, who were well ahead of the game.

Nora Armenta, executive director of the LAUSD’s Early Childhood Education program, says that they needed further clarification from the Governor’s office before they could fully assess what the loss of funding would mean.

“We’re not sure if he’s thinking about just the transitional kindergarten implementation to be postponed or suspended or eliminated, or is he talking about the entire bill, SB 1381,” she said. Armenta’s office is providing assistance to the LAUSD’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction in implementing the district’s transitional kindergarten programs.

“One of our biggest questions is, will they permit us to at least maintain the [programs] that we have open? Armenta said. “And, also, be able to hire our teachers and be able to offer [transitional kindergarten] placement to our children for next year?”