EDUCATION MATTERS: Adding a new grade level for ‘young fives’ challenges districts


By Marsha Sutto


The recent passage of the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 has greater implications than simply advancing the date by which children must turn 5 years old to enter kindergarten. It also means a mandate for school districts throughout the state to develop and implement a transitional kindergarten program for children with fall birthdays who will be too young to start kindergarten once the law kicks in.

Current California law states that children must turn 5 by Dec. 2 to start kindergarten that fall. This means that 4-year-old children with birthdays in Sept, Oct. and Nov. can enter kindergarten – and are often enrolled in classes with kids who are 5, 6 or even 7 years old.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1381, advances the date by which children must turn 5 by one month per year for three years, beginning in 2012, when the cutoff date will be Nov. 1. In 2013, the date will be Oct. 1. And in 2014, the date by which children must be 5 to enter kindergarten will be Sept. 1, where it will remain.

Roundly applauded, this change has been sought for years by teachers, administrators, school boards, legislators, parents and related statewide organizations and agencies, who all contend that younger kindergartners are more likely to struggle academically and socially.

However, a component of this legislation adds complexity to the straight-forward nature of the original intent. Because SB-1381 also requires that a transitional kindergarten program be established beginning in the year 2012 for 4-year-old children with fall birthdays, questions and confusion are emerging. The devil is in the details on this provision, which has superintendents and curriculum and instruction leaders throughout the county worrying about how this will work.

Without thinking too long and hard about this, obvious questions – about costs, funding, curriculum, teacher qualifications, classroom space and enrollment details – come to mind:

 In 2012, will the program only be open to children turning 5 in November? Or can children turning 5 in Oct. or Sept. enroll?

 In 2013, will the program only be open for children turning 5 in Oct. or Nov.? Or can children with Sept. birthdays enroll?

 What about parents who want to hold their summer birthday children back a year? Can they be enrolled in transitional kindergarten?

 For smaller districts, is this requirement fiscally responsible? For example, Solana Beach School District superintendent Leslie Fausset said she currently has 14 students with November birthdays.

 How will districts meet the need for more specialized certificated teachers and more classroom space?

 Since kindergarten is not mandatory in California, how will transitional kindergarten work?

 Is there a state-approved transitional kindergarten curriculum?

 Adding an entirely new grade level will cost districts to evaluate and purchase materials and curriculum. Is there money for that?

 Some say transitional kindergarten is mandated in the new law for 15 years (essentially permanent) so that certificated teachers can be assured of long-term employment. Will districts have the option of terminating the program after 15 years?

 The program, said to be “cost-neutral,” is estimated to save $700 million annually – or $9.1 billion in cumulative savings over the 13 years it will take as a smaller kindergarten cohort transitions through the K-12 system. Is this enough money to cover the cost for districts to implement the program?

 Can the money for this program be diverted by the legislature at any time?

 What are the chances that this will become another unfunded mandate?

 The state agrees to pay Revenue Limit districts Average Daily Attendance money for each transitional kindergarten student. But Basic Aid districts are not paid by the state per pupil. Will Basic Aid districts be given any extra money to implement this program? Or will the money need to come from reserves?

Waiting for answers

“Right now we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” said Debbie Beldock, senior director of district and school improvement at the San Diego County Office of Education.

Beldock is coordinating meetings with San Diego County’s curriculum and instruction leaders to help them sort through some of the questions. Many concerns have been presented to SDCOE legislative analyst Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations & Advocacy, who is working to clarify specifics of the transitional kindergarten aspect of the bill. Few are understood at this point, said Beldock, who expects the Calif. Dept. of Education to also offer some interpretations of the legislation soon.

“Kindergarten’s not mandatory, so there’s a whole piece of this that’s just so odd,” she said. “So we’re just trying to get our heads around it.”

Holly McClurg, Del Mar Union School District’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instructional services, said, “The plans for this county-wide are all in the infancy stages. We’re trying to get some answers on the interpretation [of the bill].”

So far, no one is certain which students will qualify for the transitional kindergarten program, except for those turning 5 in Nov. of 2012, those turning 5 in Oct. and Nov. 2013, and those turning 5 in Sept., Oct. and Nov. in 2014 and beyond. Will students with birthdays outside those months be allowed to enroll?

“I’m sure that will be a request by some parents,” McClurg said. “That is a question we asked as well. We don’t have the answer to that.” She noted that offering the class to kids whose birthdays fall outside the specific parameters of the law would be extending the amount of education that the state pays for.

The question is important for local districts because many parents in affluent communities hold their children back a year as it is, to give them the perceived advantages of increased size, academic ability and social, verbal and motor skills.

Fausset said a segment of her district’s parents sometimes decide to delay enrolling their fall-birthday children in kindergarten, while low-income families in the district often send their kids to kindergarten at age 4, many without benefit of preschool.

“A couple of years ago I pulled up the birthday spread, and it was quite wide,” Fausset said. “We had everything from [ages] 4 to 7 in kindergarten,” which she said was “proportionally huge” and a “developmentally really significant” difference.

Because children from poor families typically cannot afford private preschool, parents are reluctant to keep their fall-birthday kids home for another year of zero educational exposure. So kindergarten is their first classroom experience. But studies show that children who start kindergarten at a younger age often fall behind in social and academic development.

The intent of the legislation – and the funding model – works better for districts serving families in poverty, because these kids would be entering kindergarten anyway. So the money used for them in kindergarten can be diverted to a transitional kindergarten program, which provides them with two years of preparation for first grade and improves their chances for academic success. It also reduces the likelihood of retention in kindergarten, experts say.

Transitional kindergarten “is especially important for low-income and English language learner children, who often receive less academic preparation,” according to a fact sheet prepared by the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Joe Simitian.

A double whammy

All districts will now be required to provide a transitional class for young kindergarten students, including higher-income students who might otherwise have attended another year of preschool and not enrolled in public education until the following year. And for Basic Aid districts, which receive the bulk of their money from local property taxes rather than from the state based on per-pupil attendance, there may be no extra money for the program.

So Basic Aid districts could take a double hit to the bottom line with this transitional kindergarten requirement, because they are likely to receive a number of fall-birthday kids who would not normally enroll in public school, while getting little if any funding from the state to cover costs.

Beldock said she was investigating this issue, which is important to all the Basic Aid districts in the county that serve elementary-age students. Besides Del Mar and Solana Beach, this includes Rancho Santa Fe, Cardiff, Encinitas and Carlsbad. (The San Dieguito Union High School District is also Basic Aid but enrolls students in grades 7-12 only.)

Although still uncertain, Beldock was initially told that Basic Aid districts would not receive extra funding. “The response we received was [that] Basic Aid districts get no financial incentive, but they are essentially serving the same kids they would be serving if the age didn’t change,” she wrote in an email.

This is, of course, not true, because Basic Aid districts often serve more affluent families who tend to hold their fall-birthday children back for another year of preschool or other private school. So a transitional kindergarten program in a Basic Aid district could easily bring in many more students than the district would otherwise have.

McClurg said she was told that Basic Aid districts actually would receive funding for transitional kindergarten. “From what I’ve been told, it will not negatively impact the district’s funding,” she said. “But we haven’t seen anything in writing. I haven’t seen it in the bill. I don’t see it mentioning anything specific to Basic Aid, and I read through the whole bill as well. So I don’t know.”

Even Revenue Limit districts (those that are funded primarily by the state based on per-pupil Average Daily Attendance), may find the money they receive won’t cover the costs. “It may always cost us more to educate our children than what we get from ADA,” Beldock said. “That’s just going to always be something we struggle with.”

The gift of time

Besides these potential challenges, Beldock said another focus of her regular meetings with curriculum leaders is to discuss the selection and design of a curriculum program for transitional kindergarten.

“We’re just at the very beginning stages of figuring out what it is we might want to do countywide,” she said. “We know that we want it to be different than 4-year-old preschool.”

Beldock said the group will work this winter and spring on an ideal curriculum and is examining some of the “early admission” kindergarten programs already in existence in some of the county’s school districts.

“There are early-admission-to-kindergarten curriculums, but we would want to be very thoughtful and purposeful about the curriculum and about the program,” McClurg said.

Fausset said other districts in California, including Poway, have developed good pre-kindergarten and kindergarten readiness programs, which are courses that bridge the gap between preschool and kindergarten, for fall-birthday children who aren’t ready for kindergarten. “They’re not uncommon,” she said.

The Solana Beach School District, which currently offers a preschool program, had a pre-kindergarten program two years ago in its Child Development Center, but it was discontinued due to lack of space, Fausset said. “We’re going to obviously be revisiting that,” she said.

Fausset supports the legislation, calling it “an exciting opportunity.” She said kindergarten teachers have said for years that “fall babies, particularly little boys, have really struggled.” Even children who are intellectually and developmentally ready but are not mature or emotionally prepared can find kindergarten a challenge, she said.

“Any time we can give our children the gift of time, we’re giving them a great gift,” she said.

Solana Beach teachers and staff try to identify early in the school year which students might not be ready for kindergarten so that the grade might not have to be repeated, Fausset said.

“We really try hard to not retain children,” she said. “In our first week of school, if we have young kindergarten students that we anticipate aren’t ready, we really work hard to convince parents to find a different option for them ... The statistics around the ongoing negative impacts and effects of retention are so compelling that we try hard to not put our kids in that situation or that circumstance.”

Unintended consequences

Solana Beach currently has about 400 kindergartners, and Del Mar has about 600, with birthdays scattered throughout the calendar year. Both Fausset and McClurg said transitional kindergarten would likely be provided at only one or two school sites, with such low numbers.

“We haven’t made any of these decisions … but those will be the things we’ll have to look at – how to efficiently and effectively deliver the program to a limited number of students that it would affect,” McClurg said.

Although Basic Aid districts may suffer financially from the legislation, the positive impact transitional kindergarten may have on children living in poverty may well override the negatives.

Speaking of children in low-income families, Fausset said, “We know they start kindergarten behind because they haven’t had the exposure that children who come from affluence have had.” She said moving the cutoff date back without providing a transitional program for these fall-birthday children “isn’t helpful for them and would have been a step back.”

This legislation inserts into the educational system high-quality schooling with certificated teachers who can provide excellent instruction and can build “those critical and important and essential foundations,” Fausset said. “That could be a pretty powerful policy direction.”

A powerful policy change, yes – but also perhaps another example of good motives on paper weighted down by unintended consequences at implementation. As the list of unknowns grows, so do worries of how, in less than two years, a program of this scope and magnitude will be delivered.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: