LONG BEACH – When California school districts were required by state law to start a new early kindergarten class for some 4-year-olds for the first time this year, Long Beach Unified had an easier task than most: to simply expand the existing “preppy kindergarten” program it started five years ago.
The Long Beach program, originally the brainchild of kindergarten teachers Kris Damon and Michelle Woolwine, is not the first transitional kindergarten program in the state, but it is one of the largest. And since it has been around for several years, the program will produce the first significant data set, expected this spring, on how children from diverse economic backgrounds who attend transitional kindergarten perform in later grades, based on their grades and standardized test scores.
Offering transitional kindergarten became a statewide requirement this school year and, based on his experience with his district’s program, Long Beach Superintendent Chris Steinhauser thinks it’s a game-changing idea.
“I truly believe historians are going to write that this was a watershed moment in education in California,” Steinhauser said. “For the first time, we are really putting together a statewide early intervention model that if done correctly can have huge dividends.”
California has long allowed children to enter kindergarten before they turned five. But the 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act is slowly advancing the age required for kindergarten entry so that by 2014, children must have turned five by Sept. 1 to enroll, a common cut-off date in the rest of the country.
The new law will allow children who have not yet turned five by Sept. 2, but who will do so before Dec. 2, to attend a year of public school called transitional kindergarten. They will continue on to regular kindergarten the following year.
This year, children who turn five in September and October are still able to attend regular kindergarten, but those who turn five between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2 must attend a transitional kindergarten class if they wish to enroll in public school.
The Long Beach program got its start in late 2006 when Damon and Woolwine were teaching kindergarten at Cleveland Elementary School. They identified a need for a program to serve children who weren’t quite ready for regular kindergarten. Their principal liked the idea of providing an additional “in-between” year for some students and encouraged them to go to district officials and propose a pilot program.
Assistant Superintendent Jill Baker recommended the teachers visit the neighboring Torrance school district, which offered a class for children whose behavior and cognitive development made them seem younger than their numerical age or for children who actually fell on the youngest end of the kindergarten spectrum.
Using the Torrance program as a model, Long Beach launched its own pilot program in 2007 with one “Preppy K” classroom at Cleveland Elementary taught by Damon.
The following year, the program expanded to two classrooms for students who needed more time to get up to speed on academic tasks like recognizing letters and social tasks like taking turns during classroom activities. The program was such a hit with parents that in the third year Long Beach began expanding it to other elementary schools in the district.
When the state Legislature passed the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010, requiring school districts to introduce transitional kindergarten for some 4-year-olds, Long Beach was ready. The district got a jump on the implementation date and enrolled more than 400 students in fall 2011. This year, the program enrolled more than 600 students.
Now, any 4-year-old who turns five between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 can attend transitional kindergarten in Long Beach. Five-year-olds not quite ready for regular kindergarten also have the option of enrolling in a transitional kindergarten class at a parent’s request or on a teacher’s recommendation. This year, about 25 percent of children in Long Beach’s transitional kindergarten classes are in the program despite being eligible for regular kindergarten, according to district officials
Long Beach educators hope the transitional kindergarten program will help children stay on track in school so that fewer will be held back in later grades. They also hope the extra year will give children a chance to outgrow problems like extreme impulsivity that might normally result in a referral to special education classes.
At the moment, transitional kindergarten isn’t costing taxpayers any additional money because Long Beach and other districts are serving the same total number of kindergarten-age children as they would have served under California’s old law governing admission to public school. It’s just that now those children are divided into two classes: kindergarten and transitional kindergarten. The extra cost to the taxpayer will come when students reach 12th grade.
Until now, the state was committed to paying for 13 years of public school education for every child: one year of kindergarten and then one year each for grades 1 through 12. The Kindergarten Readiness Act commits the state to paying for 14 years of public school education for the subset of children, about 25 percent, who enroll in transitional kindergarten.
“That’s money well spent,” Steinhauser said, because it will save the district the cost of helping students catch up in later grades, or even the costs of special education classes where he thinks some students end up without the support of an additional year of kindergarten.
Veteran Long Beach kindergarten teacher Nancy Jarzomb began teaching transitional kindergarten last year. She said she’s already hearing from other teachers that her former students are excelling in their regular kindergarten classes. Jarzomb, who taught kindergarten in Long Beach for 32 years, said the differences between students in the two grade levels are clear to her. As a group, she says, the children in her transitional kindergarten class aren’t able to pay attention or sit still as long and aren’t as emotionally mature.
California has clear math and English language content standards for regular kindergarten, setting multiple goals for students to reach by the end of the year. For example, children must know how to count to 30, name the days of the week and write three sentences on a single topic by the end of the year.
In transitional kindergarten, the content standards are the same, but children only need to show progress toward those standards by the end of the year, not meet them, as traditional kindergarten students are required to do. In her first year of teaching transitional kindergarten, Jarzomb said she tried to do everything at the same pace as in regular kindergarten, but by October realized she had to slow down.
“Transitional kindergarten introduces them to school,” Jarzomb said. “There’s structure and academics, but there’s not that pressure to pass everything.”
Time to grow
That doesn’t mean all of her students are performing the same academically, Jarzomb said. Differences in children’s abilities were evident during “journal time” in Jarzomb’s class. While a dozen children gathered around big tables to draw pictures in their journals, two girls joined Jarzomb at another table to play “the name game.”
Each girl had a plastic baggie with the letters of her name on pieces of card-stock. The goal was to take the letters out and sort them to spell one’s first and last name. Jarzomb sat with the girls and checked their work, then showed them alphabet flashcards and asked them to tell her if those letters were in their names.
Meanwhile, the girls’ classmates on the other side of the room were writing simple sentences describing their illustrations, a more complex literacy task.
“They are all at different levels, but I know they have two years to get everything,” Jarzomb said, referring to the year of regular kindergarten her students will enroll in next fall. “If they don’t get it this year, they have next year to master the skills.”
Jarzomb said her students get another boost from being in her class, one that’s harder to define, but, she feels, equally or even more important. It’s a concept known in early education parlance as “school readiness.” That includes the ability to share classroom materials with other students, control their emotions in class and pay attention to the teacher, skills Jarzomb said she has time to concentrate on in transitional kindergarten.
Long Beach Assistant Superintendent Baker said many kindergarten teachers love the focus on social development in transitional kindergarten, which they feel has gotten shorter shrift in the regular kindergarten classroom. Baker said a common reaction from many teachers when they first heard about transitional kindergarten was: “That’s what kindergarten used to be.”
Not quite, Baker cautions. “It is development centered but it also requires students to think and do mathematics,” she said. And that, she thinks, is not a bad way for young students to spend an extra year.
Superintendent Steinhauser is so enthusiastic about transitional kindergarten, he’d like to see the program used as a stepping-stone for offering universal preschool for all 4-year-olds. That’s an initiative his district is already working on, but one that hasn’t caught on statewide quite yet.
“Transitional kindergarten is one small step towards universal preschool,” Steinhauser said, “and one giant step towards closing the achievement gap.”
Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact Lillian and follow her at Twitter.com/lrmongeau.