Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 11, 2012

On Deadline: Will transitional-kindergarten survive state budget revise?

by Jay Thorwaldson

A potential revolutionary change in kindergarten faces a major budget test May 14 when California leaders hammer out a state "budget revise."

The proposed change is twofold. It would require that all regular kindergartners have birthdays prior to Sept. 1, and institute a new "transitional kindergarten" for five-year-olds born late in the year.

But the "transitional" component is threatened by state budget cutbacks.

The issue is rooted in Palo Alto, which as far back as the early 1960s recognized the challenge and in the mid-1970s created what is now the "Young Fives" program. Young Fives was copied by some other districts, but most fell victim to budget cuts.

The current change in kindergarten age requirements originated in Palo Alto when two teachers kindergarten teacher Diana Argenti and second-grade reading specialist Natalie Bivas approached state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) armed with petitions signed by 287 teacher colleagues.

Simitian asked Bivas why she as a second-grade teacher was interested in kindergarten ages. Her reply surprised him.

"I'm the one these kids ask for help in reading. They would be better served if they were emotionally and developmentally ready" for kindergarten, he recalls her saying. The broader teacher support was because the problems of the younger kids often linger through many grade levels, requiring extra attention and resources.

Simitian then learned of the 25-year history in California of attempts to deal with the young-fives dilemma. He says he learned how the age-related handicaps stay with kids throughout their early education years, and sometimes beyond in terms of emotional scars and academic blocks.

"Old timers" in Sacramento warned him that he'd never get a bill off the Senate floor. Simitian said he was as pleasantly surprised as anyone when the bill not only passed both the Senate and Assembly, with a dramatic pre-midnight vote in the Senate. It was signed as one of the final acts of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called it landmark legislation.

"We're fighting now to hang on to the program," Simitian said, referring to the upcoming budget revise. Education subcommittees of both the Assembly and Senate have opposed the cut, and there is optimism that the transitional feature will soon be restored. Overall, the program is expected to be cost neutral due to savings in later remedial support.

The change may seem small. It is simply a delay of three months in some 5-year-olds' entry into a regular kindergarten by requiring the child to be born after Sept. 1, rather than the present Dec. 1. This is an issue that has been fought over for more than a quarter century, and until now every attempt to delay kindergarten for the "young fives" has failed.

The big difference this time around is the notion of "transitional kindergarten," known as "TK." Rather than being "held back" a dread fate that hits about 18 percent of kids in early grades the youngsters will be enrolled in a transitional class keyed to their readiness in terms of social, emotional and even physical maturity.

The extra three months is a "gift of time" for the younger child, one legislative staff aide observed. That gift becomes a boon to the child for all of their early years in school, according to teachers and officials who have worked to create the new state law, which takes effect this fall in a three-year phase-in. This year the cutoff birth date will move from December to Nov. 1. In 2013 it will move to Oct. 1, and finally in 2014 to Sept. 1.

Instead of being the "little kids" with fewer social skills and less emotional security, when the children do enter regular kindergarten they become class leaders as the older, more ready-to-learn and socially adept kids.

But Gov. Jerry Brown dropped the transitional concept from his state budget package while keeping the age-cutoff features, triggering consternation in school districts statewide from officials to a quarter million parents of the approximately 125,000 children ultimately impacted.

In addition to the academic-planning and developmental-readiness issues, school officials realize that if the younger kids are simply "held back" their already hard-pressed districts will lose another chunk of state funding based on daily attendance, estimated at about $700 million statewide.

The transitional-kindergarten plan would keep those kids in school, either in separate classes or "combo" classes with regular-kindergarteners. Hence no budget hit for the districts, about half of which already face declining enrollments.

It would be "unconscionable" to drop the transitional-kindergarten component, Simitian says. It was a key feature that won legislative approval of the plan, after all earlier attempts. So tune in May 14.

In a longer view, there's irony. A few decades back, academically concerned parents pushed for earlier learning of reading, math and other subjects. Thus today's kindergarten classes are teaching things that older generations didn't have to learn until first grade and much of the social-adjustment emphasis of the 1950s (such as playing kickball during recesses) shifted to academic performance.

But as the kinder-curriculum was elevated, those not developmentally ready began to flounder.

Historically, Palo Alto's Young Fives program is a visionary footnote.

It grew from a group of mothers of 16 boys who felt their youngsters weren't ready for regular kindergarten but didn't want them to repeat the program for 4-year-olds. The mothers met with Palo Alto teacher Eleanora Jadwin.

Names from the deep past of Palo Alto education, such as pre-school readiness pioneer Besse Bolton and Betty Rogoway, surface in the pre-Young Fives years. Bolton taught a similar class until 1962, when Rogoway took it on.

In 1975, the Young Fives was created under the auspices of Pre-School Family and Palo Alto Adult Education. The growing program became an official part of the Palo Alto Unified School District in 1987, when a second Young Fives class was added. Jadwin taught the class until 1988.

From its inception, the program was built on teachers and parents collaborating, with parents observing and writing about their children and sharing their insights at evening or lunchtime discussions.

Sharon Keplinger, the current head of the Palo Alto school district's child-development programs, observes how "very forward thinking" Jadwin and the mothers were in the mid-1970s, along with the vision of their predecessors.

There are some differences between Young Fives, where time-consuming individual evaluations are done for each child, and TK, which links to birth dates in nearly all cases.

Yet there seems to be a new awareness among many parents, even in high-achieving Palo Alto, that sometimes slowing down a bit can result in later, long-lasting rewards.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be reached at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.

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