A new California law requires school districts to offer children who turn 5 in the fall an extra year of kindergarten, but with funding tighter than ever, school officials are hustling to create what amounts to a brand-new grade level.
At its meeting this month, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District grappled with how to create the program when the law offers districts little guidance and no funding.
“For decades we have been talking about changing kindergarten age; most people who are experts in early childhood believe we should,” said board member Jill Wynns. However, she added, “This is really not the time to engage in an enormously complex educational program development, because it costs money.”
Although they are not sure how much it will cost, many school officials support the concept, which they say will help children who are younger than their peers become more successful students later on.
“I don’t think it will ever be a good time, but it’s good to have this,” said Sandy Mikulik, curriculum director at the Jefferson Elementary School District on the Peninsula.
The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 rolls back the cutoff dates by which children entering kindergarten must have turned 5. This year, that date was Dec. 2, but over the next three years it will become Nov. 1, then Oct. 1, and finally Sept. 1.
Beginning in fall 2012, schools will be required to offer children with birthdays after the cutoff date but before Dec. 2 a two-year program called “transitional kindergarten,” which will focus more on social and emotional development and pre-academic skills, such as using scissors.
Educators say this is important because in recent years kindergarten has become more academic, to the extent that some call it “the new first grade.”
“Those 4-year-olds, in general, they’re not ready for the academic rigor in kindergarten,” said Jessica Mihaly, a consultant who is helping several Peninsula school districts improve kindergarten readiness.
In addition to planning curriculum, school officials must also figure out how to get parents to sign their children up for the voluntary program, which some might see as stigmatizing.
Mihaly suggested families think of it in a different way.
“This transitional kindergarten is a great benefit to children,” Mihaly said. “There’s a concern that it is a ding on kids, but it’s a great opportunity for a 14th year of free public education.”
130,000 California children who will be eligible for transitional kindergarten in 2014, the first year of full implementation
20 School districts that already have transitional kindergarten
700 School districts that must have it by fall 2012
$0 State funding earmarked for transitional kindergarten
Source: Preschool California, an Oakland-based nonprofit