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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

SB 1381 Kindergarten Age

I am literally saying prayers right now that Gov. Schwarzenegger does not sign this bill.

If you are not familiar with the billl, it changes the deadline for kindergarten entrance from Dec 2. to Sept. 1st. The reason for this is that apparently some educators feel that children who enter kindergarten at age 4 are not quite ready for the academic demands and are not as successful as their peers. Frankly, I think it is totally the wrong solution.

The bill would create a transitional kindergarten for children whose birthdays fall between September and December. Basically, for kids in the transitional kindergarten, it would be like they are in kindergarten for 2 years, starting with skills that are more pre-k type skills. The reason that they cite for this necessity is, ironically enough, the importance of early learning. Advocates of the bill point out that many children of low-income families enter kindergarten with no preparation at all, and that they are less likely to succeed if they are younger. California has some of the most rigorous academic expectations for kindergarteners. Studies show that the first 5 years of a child's life are some of the most impressionable, when they are most ripe for learning literacy and numeracy skills. I do not understand why it makes sense to then push kids out of kindergarten during this time period.

Part of the problem is that parents who are more affluent and can afford an extra year of preschool are choosing not to send their children to kindergarten until as late as 6 years old. This makes an understandably difficult situation for any kindergarten teacher. How do you teach a child who is 4.75 years old and has never held a pencil or heard the alphabet in the same class as a 6 year old child who went to a reading readiness preschool and already knows the phonetics of each letter and has 20 or so sight words? It would be very challenging. I can't even imagine. However... that situation could be reversed too. You could still have a 4.75 year old who attended the reading readiness school and a 6 year old child of migrant workers who helped mom pick berries until this year. Age is not the main factor for success in the equation. Parenting and education is.

The answer, however, is not pushing kids OUT of school in those very advantageous learning years. The answer is not creating transitional kindergartens for that AGE group. The answer is assessing a child's skills and putting them in the appropriate program for those skills, transitional or regular. The answer is not using average daily attendance money to keep kids in kindergarten for an extra year. It is creating more funds for mandatory preschool programs. It is revising the California Compulsory Attendance law. Did you know that, in the state of California, children are not required to attend school until they are 6 years old?  As a result, some parents are actually choosing not to send their children to school until they are 6, and then having them start kindergarten when they are 6. Under the law, they are supposed to start in 1st grade if they start at 6, but in most districts, this would put children at a disadvantage, so they are started in kindergarten.

 Tiana's birthday is only 2 weeks after the deadline. She will inevitably be very similar to Vinny in that she will get a high quality early childhood education. Vinny is currently 4, in a pre-k program, learning many of the things that are supposed to be in this new transitional kindergarten. In fact, much of what he is being taught is actually part of current kindergarten curriculum too, which I am finding is actually pretty common in high quality preschool instruction. Vinny is rather successful in this age-appropriate curriculum. So... if, this bill passes, then that puts Tiana doing this stuff for 2 years- once when she is 4 in pre-k, and then again when she is 5 in transitional kindergarten. Frankly... that's ridiculous.

The text of the bill says that a school district MAY, on a case-by-case basis, admit a 4 year old child to a regular kindergarten as long as he/she turns 5 at any time during the school year, but both the governing board and the parents must agree that it is in the best interest of the child. Because it is written as a MAY, and it is up to a governing board, my guess is that most school districts will not be spending the time or money to hear very many cases like this. I would be more pleased with this condition of the bill if it required school districts to assess a child for regular kindergarten if a parent requests it, but under this bill, the law will not require them to do so, so I don't see why they would. They might... but there is no guarantee.

In my opinion, some huge reforms are necessary, but this is not it. I think that the following should happen:
1) A state-funded mandatory preK program school be created.
2) It should be mandatory for children to attend a preK class at age 4.
3) Transitional kindergarten should only be used for kids who are behind after completing mandatory preK, and not yet ready for regular kindergarten.
4) Parents should not be allowed to voluntarily hold their children back.
5) Children should always be retained if they have not met the majority of grade level standards, at teacher's discretion. No pushing kids forward just to keep them with their class... ever.

Ugh.... this state, I swear.

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