As the public education system becomes more rigorous and standardized, its effect is creeping down to the littlest students. If you think back to your own Kindergarten days, you might remember singing and puppet shows and smearing paint with your fingers to create art. Today kindergarten is more academic, resulting in more struggling children.
To remedy this, California has implemented a new grade called Transitional Kindergarten (or TK for short). In its first year, this new grade aims to bridge the gap between the play-world of preschool and the rigors of kindergarten.
So how’s it working out?
A good place to begin is the kindergarten classroom. Unless you’ve had a child start school in the past decade, it’s likely that the big changes to this first year of school have passed you by. Not so for elementary school educators who have been on the frontlines as the changes have occurred.
Barbara Friedrich is the Principal at Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Los Angeles. She has watched kindergarten change over her decades at the school. Friedrich points out that kindergarten went from half to full day and became much more academic. She says her staff now has to “assess kindergarten children in ways which we never had to before.”
The result? Friedrich says these changes to kindergarten have “set up many children for failure.” That failure is largely due to children arriving at kindergarten unprepared for the academic demands that are placed on them.
At Martha Escutia elementary school in Bell, children in the kindergarten classroom are working on a class project to draw and label a map of their neighborhood. Principal Janice Shinmae says the skills needed for this kind of advanced exercise involve fine motor control to “grip” the pencil, advanced literacy to do “independent writing” and social-emotional regulation to sit and focus on the task. A decade ago this activity would likely have occurred in first grade.
Kindergarten used to function as a bridging year to elementary school. It was where children would learn the basics needed to ensure a smooth transition to the academics of first grade. It used to be the place where teachers had time to work with children at all their varying levels of literacy, numeracy, fine motor skills and even emotional control.
When children arrived at kindergarten they had come from a variety of different settings. If a child has been home with a parent or nanny since birth, kindergarten was her first exposure to socializing with other children. Even preschool experiences differ widely resulting in kids being all over the map when they arrive in Kindergarten.
Enter Transitional Kindergarten, or TK. It’s a new grade introduced to the California public school system serving four year olds born in the Fall. TK is an optional program and its goal is to prepare children for the rigors of Kindergarten.
Kris Damon is a TK Instructional Coach for Long Beach Unified School District, one of the districts that has most embraced the new TK grade. Damon says four year olds need to learn to work with each other just as much as they need to learn to write letters. Damon offers an example in which two Long Beach four year-olds are participating in a counting and art activity. They are placing objects in a straight line to make sets of nine.
Damon says, “they both want to count and they both want to lay down the objects and then they’re counting over each other but sometimes they’re counting with each other.” Eventually, Damon says, because of the time allowed in a TK classroom, the students reach their goal of making their set of nine “together.”
Critical to an exercise like this are the art elements that make a simple counting exercise more engaging and fun. That’s likely to help a four year-old stay focused and complete the task. Kris Damon says the ability to focus is one of the most important skills needed for success in kindergarten, where it is just expected that a child will complete the exercise without constant encouragement to do so from the teacher.
Learning to work with other children is another important skill that Transitional Kindergarten teaches. In the TK classroom at Martha Escutia Elementary school in Bell, the four year olds are working in groups. One group is placing colored dots over numbers from 1 to 100 on a number chart. This involves focus, fine motor skills and the ability to count and recognize colors.
Another group is pasting circles of different colors onto a long piece of paper in rows of ten. Then they practice counting to ten and learning to count in multiples of ten. All of which are skills children will benefit from knowing by the time they start Kindergarten.
Advocates and educators had been pushing for a TK-like program “for years,” according to Catherine Atkin, Executive Director of Preschool California. Atkin says teachers have been “telling Sacramento that these kids are just too young to be in traditional kindergarten.”
In 2010, the Kindergarten Readiness Act changed the birthdate for entry into Kindergarten to account for too many young four year-olds failing. It also established a transitional program to accommodate the children who would miss out on starting kindergarten if they were born in the Fall. TK began last August, and while every school district is required to provide TK classes, not every school in the district has to offer it. The Department of Education is not keep track of which schools, or how many schools, currently have TK programs.
Ana Jimenz has a four year old son. She lived in South Gate and had her son on a preschool wait list for over a year. Frustrated that he could not gain entrance to preschool, Jimenez began researching options. She found the TK program at Martha Escutia and moved to Bell. Jimenez says “he didn’t have a chance to go to preschool, so I think this is a great opportunity for him to catch up and learn what he didn’t learn because he didn’t have preschool.” Jimenez volunteers at the school and is able to observe first hand the progress her son is making on a daily basis.
For now TK is an optional program for children. However, if President Obama’s push for Universal Pre-K comes through, California will be well on the way to meet that mandate.