Classes combining kindergarten, transitional kindergarten pose challenges

March 25, 2015

Greta Heinke and Kenneth Cisneros, both in transitional kindergarten, play a memory match game together during free choice time at Bishop School in Sunnyvale Elementary District.

As a result of a new state law, California schools instituted transitional kindergarten to give 4-year-olds who were previously eligible for kindergarten an extra year to adjust to school and experience a less academically-oriented curriculum. But many thousands of those children are in classrooms with kindergartners, leaving teachers to figure out how to accommodate the new approach for 4-year-olds while preparing the 5-year-olds for 1st grade.

In 2013-14, about 57,000 students were estimated to have been in transitional kindergarten, and 78 percent of the classes were combination classes with both kindergartners and transitional kindergartners, according to the most recent data provided by the California Department of Education. An estimated 1,298 classes were stand-alone transitional kindergarten, while 4,674 were mixed classes.

California used to allow all students who turned 5 by Dec. 2 to enter kindergarten. But beginning in 2012-13, legislators pushed back the entry date for kindergarten and phased in transitional kindergarten for the youngest students, reaching full implementation this school year. To be eligible for transitional kindergarten, children must turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

“By design, we wanted to give districts flexibility to provide transitional kindergarten in the way that worked for them,” said former state Sen. Joe Smitian, author of the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010.

Legislators and early education advocates expected some mixed classes, because in many schools there are not enough transitional kindergartners to form a separate class.

“By design, we wanted to give districts flexibility to provide transitional kindergarten in the way that worked for them,” said former state Sen. Joe Simitian, author of the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, which established transitional kindergarten. Those options include stand-alone classes, offering a stand-alone class for students from more than one elementary school, and mixed classes.

“I’m a little bit surprised,” Simitian said about the large number of mixed classes. “But it doesn’t trouble me.”

“This is the first year of full implementation,” he said. “It will shake down over time. In a perfect world, my view is that combination classes work best when they are done for educationally sound reasons. But it’s not at all uncommon for decisions to be less grounded in education policy than in demographics and facilities constraints.”

Erin Gabel, deputy director of First 5 California, a publicly funded organization that provides programs for children 5 and younger, sees some advantage to the mixed classes. She believes they help make kindergarten more developmentally appropriate – relying less on worksheets and more on play-based learning.

“Child development programs (such as preschool) and kindergarten are supposed to be completely different,” Gabel said. “But we know those kids aren’t completely different.”

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Inchara Chimanga Mahanteshwa, a transitional kindergartner, is using manipulatives to understand math at Cumberland School in Sunnyvale.

Some longtime kindergarten teachers agree with Gabel, according to Sarah Baron, who has a doctorate in education from Fresno State University and wrote her dissertation on the implementation of transitional kindergarten in 24 districts in Fresno and Kern counties. The teachers were excited about the prospect of the combination classes, she said, because they liked including more play-based strategies, such as using puppet theaters to build language and develop social skills.

However, in the first years of implementation, other teachers felt “overwhelmed” by the need to provide two different curricula, particularly when class sizes were larger than 20, Baron said.

For many teachers, “the beginning of the year was rough,” she said. But it got easier to implement the new teaching strategies, Baron said, as the younger students adjusted to school and developed social-emotional skills, such as learning how to sit still, waiting their turn, sharing and following rules.

Teachers of transitional kindergartners are expected to base their instruction on the Preschool Learning Foundations used by the state’s preschools, while kindergarten teachers rely on the Common Core State Standards for kindergarten. State law also requires that transitional kindergarten teachers have 24 hours of child development courses or the equivalent in work experience, but gives teachers until 2020 to meet that requirement.

A report by the American Institutes for Research found that, in the first year of implementation, fewer than 1 in 3 transitional kindergarten teachers had previous preschool experience.

The state has offered no training for kindergarten teachers with transitional kindergartners in their classrooms, but does have an implementation guide posted on the California Department of Education website.

Celeste Quiñonez, a former 2nd-grade teacher, now teaches a combination class of 20 students that includes seven kindergartners at Vineland School in the Vineland School District in Bakersfield. She was assigned to the combination class because she had the least seniority, she said, but has been able to adjust her teaching to meet the needs of her younger students.

“I modify the activity, do it more slowly, so the transitional kindergartners can understand,” she said. “I give the kindergarten students more challenging work.”

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Kindergartners Koustav Mazumder, left, and Samuel Daniel are looking at a sea urchin shell in Heidi Switzer’s class at Bishop School in Sunnyvale.

Quiñonez says she has received no specific training, but has relied on the Common Core curriculum for kindergarten and the advice from three kindergarten teachers at her school on how to effectively implement it.

Some districts have developed their own approaches to training teachers.

Los Angeles Unified has created a curriculum that integrates preschool standards with the Common Core, said Maureen Diekmann, executive director of L.A. Unified’s Early Childhood Education division. Transitional kindergartners are expected to learn half the kindergarten standards so they can enter kindergarten with confidence, she said.

Dalys Stewart, principal of Hamasaki Elementary School in L.A. Unified, said her teachers in combination classes emphasize social-emotional skills. Those skills also help the kindergartners who may have trouble adjusting to school, she said.

Fresno Unified is training its principals as well as its teachers. In research for her dissertation, Baron found that teachers were often afraid to implement more play-based activities because their principals did not understand that the children were learning through play.

Elizabeth Buettner, principal at Eaton Elementary School, is taking part in Fresno Unified’s Early Learning Principal Academy, which includes watching expert transitional kindergarten teachers in action, teaching a small group lesson for about an hour, and observing children during child-initiated activities.

In observing play and talking with the children, you start to see how they are thinking, Buettner said. “Sometimes they don’t know that they are learning.”

At the Sunnyvale Elementary School District in the Bay Area, the kindergarten leadership team spent four years researching what is developmentally appropriate for both age groups. They then modified the kindergarten curriculum for the transitional kindergartners rather than having totally separate curricula, said Heidi Switzer, who has taught both preschool and kindergarten. She now teaches a combination class of 23 students at Bishop School, with about half transitional kindergartners.

Switzer handles academic differences by separating children into small groups based on their ability. “But that doesn’t address the social-emotional aspects where we see the bigger difference,” she said. Kindergartners typically can work independently and are quicker to grasp concepts, she said.

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Parent Robert Clapp helps Kanaru Kumiji, a transitional kindergartner, read a book at Cumberland School in Sunnyvale Elementary School District.

Michaela Shull, who teaches at Cumberland School in the Sunnyvale district, has a combination class of 23 students. With only three students in transitional kindergarten, the class is necessarily going at a kindergartner’s pace. One of the three students is keeping up academically, she said, but he gets tired by the afternoon. Instead of following the after-lunch curriculum, the student can quietly look at books or play with blocks.

Teacher Roxana Aguirre has the opposite situation. Her class at Lafayette Elementary School in Long Beach is made up of 21 transitional kindergartners and six kindergartners. The year before she had mostly kindergartners.

Aguirre said this year “it’s a harder mix,” as the younger children must learn how to behave in a classroom. Her class includes one boy who regularly throws tantrums.

The focus on social skills and the slower pace for academic work means the kindergartners sometimes get bored, she said. Three of the kindergartners are at grade level or higher in English language arts and math, Aguirre said. But she has requested interventions for the other three, two of whom have been frequently absent.

Switzer handles her evenly divided combination class by allowing children to be active as long as they are engaged in learning.

Liv Ames for EdSource

Heidi Switzer’s transitional kindergarten/kindergarten classroom in Bishop School in Sunnyvale has a life-size tree with paper leaves.

In the first hour of the day, Switzer manages to weave in phonics, math and word recognition while discussing the calendar and the weather. To a song about a rocket blasting off, children count backwards from 20. They practice right and left by dancing the Hokey Pokey.

The letter for the week is L, which stands for lobster, so in that first hour the children gather on a multicolored rug beneath a life-size tree with paper leaves to hear a story about shellfish, leading to a discussion of compound words. There is back-and-forth about whether the book is fiction or nonfiction and why. Some children have eaten clams and say they are good. Switzer then passes around shells, which the students eagerly finger and talk about together.

Switzer’s blend of movement and hands-on experiences with academic rigor is designed to meet the needs of both grades. “It has been challenging,” she said, adding that her first priority has to be to prepare the kindergartners for 1st grade.

The distinction between the two grades, while challenging for teachers, has been confusing to some parents, say administrators, including L.A. Unified’s Diekmann. Parents sometimes think if their children have been in a combination class, they should be promoted to 1st grade instead of “repeating” kindergarten, she said.

Fresno Unified does not offer combination classes, partly to help teachers learn the new grade level, but also to “avoid confusion for the parents,” said Wilma Hashimoto, assistant superintendent for early learning. The large Central Valley district has avoided mixing classes by allowing a wide fluctuation in transitional kindergarten class sizes, from 15 to 24 students.

It’s easier for parents to accept the transition from transitional kindergarten to kindergarten to 1st grade if the classes are not combined, Hashimoto said.

Robert Clapp was disappointed when he learned that the teacher and administrator at Cumberland School in Sunnyvale thought his daughter, a transitional kindergartner who was in a mixed class last year, should go into kindergarten this year because she needed more time to develop her social and fine motor skills. He went along with the decision, but is sorry that he did.

“I feel like she has gone backward socially,” Clapp said. “She has no friends in this class.” He also feels she is being “held back” academically.

But Mary Esther Si, a parent whose daughter was in transitional kindergarten last year at Fairwood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, said her daughter benefited from going to kindergarten instead of 1st grade.

“She was very shy when she entered school,” Si said. “Now if she is asked to lead a group, she can do it. This extra year is definitely a gift.”

The difficulties of teaching to two age groups in the same class and a recent influx of transitional kindergartners have caused the Sunnyvale district to change its approach. Next year, Sunnyvale will offer no more combination classes, and the understanding will be that transitional kindergartners move to kindergarten unless they are particularly accelerated, Switzer said.

“I’m looking forward to next year,” said Switzer, who will be teaching kindergarten. “The transitional kindergartners will be getting what they need.”

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