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California transitional kindergarten trapped in limbo as funds sit on chopping block

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

A transitional kindergarten class in Long Beach serves kids who are about to turn five-years-old at the beginning of the school years. Governor Jerry Brown proposed cutting funding for the classes to start in the fall.

It’s kindergarten sign-up season, the time of the year when school districts open up enrollment and parents fret about walking their child into his or her first public school classroom in the fall.

California has been complicating the process by gradually moving the kindergarten enrollment birthdate while creating new classes for 4-year-olds. Now Gov. Jerry Brown’s threatened to cut the money for this transitional kindergarten just as school districts have begun to get it ready.

To enter kindergarten this fall, kids must be 5 years old by Nov. 1 — and in two years the cutoff date will be Sept. 1. This is due to a growing consensus across the country that four-and-a-half-year-old children should not occupy the same classrooms as 5-year-old kids on the cusp of turning six. Their educational needs are vastly different.

Toland Way Elementary School in L.A.'s Eagle Rock hosts one of the about 100 transitional kindergarten pilot classes in LAUSD. Teacher Mayra Shiosaki says its goal is to give 4-year-olds a solid foundation for kindergarten and first grade.

"At the very beginning of the year it was more developmental," Shiosaki explained. "More using their fine motor skills, a lot of activities through play and music. And so now they’re able to, as you can see, work independently. They’re on their own for 10, 15 minutes per activity."

They’ll take those skills next door to teacher Rosalva Amezcua’s kindergarten class. In transitional kindergarten, a child points to a word to complete a simple sentence. In kindergarten, teachers expect the child to have a stronger grasp of language.

The state directed school districts to offer transitional kindergarten with credentialed teachers for about 40,000 Californian kids caught in the age gap. The program would become permanent but not mandatory in two years. LAUSD has begun the pilot classes in preparation for the change, but expansion plans are on hold because Gov. Brown has since proposed cutting the $223 million that would have paid for teachers, supplies and facilities.

"It’s just one more example of how the bad economy is caught," said Louise Adler, an education professor at Cal State Fullerton. "In the long run, we’re eating our seed corn here. We're being penny wise and pound foolish."

Adler says the state should focus its scarce education dollars on the preschool years because that’s where they’ll influence kids most over the long term.

Meanwhile, the fear that districts are backing off from age-appropriate kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds has mobilized a coalition of school district superintendents, preschool advocates and parents.

Long Beach Unified Superintendent Chris Steinhauser led a press event at a campus that offers a transitional kindergarten class.

"The message I want to get out to all educators and to all superintendents is that this isn’t something we can back off from," said Long Beach Unified superintendent Chris Steinhauser during a press event on a transitional kindergarten campus. "We have to do this. We need to move forward. Long Beach is fully implementing the program next year."

Because, Steinhauser says, the district will reap the benefits in the later grades. Felicia Jones, with the advocacy group Families in Schools, says widespread uncertainty over transitional kindergarten confuses parents.

"They are in limbo and wondering what is going to happen and what has started to develop," she said. "There’s a danger and fear that this could go away before it’s had the opportunity to thrive."

That worry pervades the atmosphere as parents sign their kids up for kindergarten in the fall and make plans for their 4-year-olds.

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