Emma Chavez sat on a mat in her classroom, her face buried in her hands, sobbing.
“Why are you crying?” teacher Veronica Azizi asked the five year old?
“Because it’s the last day of school,” Chavez blurted out as she heaved deep breathes in between sobs. “And I’m going to miss you.”
Azizi hugged her and broke down into tears herself.
This was no ordinary last day. The 23 children in Azizi’s Winnetka classroom were a combination of Kindergarten and Transitional Kindergarten students. Transitional Kindergarten (TK) is the new grade level that California created for children who just missed the age cutoff for kindergarten.
The new grade, which started this year, is meant to get those kids ready for the rigors of Kindergarten by learning numbers and words. Education experts across the country are watching the program for lessons on how the Obama Administration’s proposal for universal Pre-K would work -- or stumble.
California law required every district to offer at least one transitional kindergarten class in at least one school during the 2012-2013 school year. But the state Department of Education did not keep statistics on which schools or school districts offered it.
A study by the non-partisan organization American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that 96% of districts with children that qualified for the program, offered it. The other 4 percent offered varied reasons for not implementing a TK program, most often that the district was too small to add a whole class for a handful of students. AIR said 39,000 students across the state enrolled in Transitional Kindergarten.
The institute’s lead researcher, Heather Quick, said California provided schools the usual per-pupil funding, but no extra money for training or supplies to start up the new grade.
“Kindergarten teachers have gotten rid of the blocks and the dress up corner and transitional kindergarten classrooms have the opportunity to bring those back,” she said. But, “it requires some resources.”
The program was created to make up for the 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act, which changed the birthdate for admission into Kindergarten over a course of years. By 2014, all incoming kindergarteners will have to be five-years-old.
To accommodate older four-year-olds, the state created Transitional Kindergarten, which is supposed to meet the needs of this younger group of students who can’t sit still as long or control emotions as well as five- and six-year-olds.
Teachers and principals who offered the class this inaugural year said they were glad they did – but said implementation was not without challenges.
The state offered few guidelines and no set curriculum. Some teachers met on their own time during the summer strategizing and planning the new program.
Stanley Mosk Elementary school Principal Barbara Friedrich was one of the first in the Los Angeles Unified district to volunteer her school to be a Transitional Kindergarten site. Almost 90% of the school’s students come from low-income families, she said, many of which can’t afford preschool.
Studies have shown that preschool gives children a leg up throughout their education so she saw Transitional Kindergarten as a chance to start her school’s students off on the right foot.
This year’s class graduated having learned 30 to 100 numbers and 30 sight words – the standard she holds for her kindergarteners. One of the kids did so well that she is going straight to 1st grade.
Friedrich credits Azizi, the teacher, who made the learning hands-on and play-based.
“The kids think they’re playing,” Friedrich said, “and indeed –surprise -- they’re learning!”
Whit Hayslip, the former superintendent for early learning at the Los Angeles Unified School District, said it’ll take years to know the true success of the program.
Hayslip said researchers should look at this first cohort of students as they progress through the early grades and compare them to students in prior years, before Transitional Kindergarten was implemented.
“We need to be following these kids now as they move on to first and second and third grade,” he said.
Hayslip adds that schools can’t just tack on this program to their regular classes and expect it to make a difference. Rather, they have to come up with a graduated curriculum that builds on Transitional Kindergarten.
At Pasadena’s McKinley Elementary, teacher Tina Renzullo said she relished the chance to work with her fellow teachers and plan the curriculum for the new class, even if it meant giving up time during summer vacation.
She said her previous ten years as a kindergarten teacher were very focused on “academic gains.” Transitional Kindergarten gave her the chance to work on “social emotional growth,” and try out a pedagogy that she believed would work but had been unable to use in Kindergarten.
“I wanted to see how far children would go with them being the lead in learning how to read,” she said.
Renzullo, who has been a Pasadena district teacher of the year, described this first year as a sort of “woodshedding” of the idea of transitional kindergarten.
A typical day involved reading, writing, math, science and social studies, but everything was play-based and hands-on learning.
There were plenty of hugs when children got sad, and she made time to talk about feelings.
Student-led learning worked pretty well, Renzullo said, listing off the kids who made dramatic improvements. All her students met the basic requirements to be “kindergarten ready,” and most excelled beyond.
On Thursday last week, she proudly handed all 23 students a certificate of completion. Delighted parents looked on, some carrying bunches of brightly colored balloons that said “congratulations graduate.”