Transitional Kindergarten Aims for a Lifelong Boost


State Senate Democrats are pushing for the expansion of transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds in hopes that it will reduce costs in special education and incarcerations down the road.

Transitional kindergarten, which started in 2012-13, is currently only open to children who turn 5 in the fall months. Senate Bill 837 (the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014) would gradually open the program to younger children over a five-year-period until all 4-year-olds could attend.

Transitional kindergarten is the first year of a two-year kindergarten program that gives children more time to learn colors, numbers and letters as well as basic skills like following instructions, sharing and getting along with other students.  While all school districts are required to offer transitional kindergarten, the program is voluntary for parents. Classes are taught by credentialed teachers.

“It’s free preschool,” said Tami Dixon, whose daughter attends transitional kindergarten at Orchard Elementary School in Modesto. “This gives kids a huge advantage. They’re getting a good solid foundation of the basics of kindergarten.”

Dixon said she enrolled her older children in private preschool and is grateful that she can save money with her youngest through the free program.

During the five-year phase-in of expanded transitional kindergarten, 46,000 4-year-olds would be added each year until eventually 350,000 4-year-olds would be eligible. The program would be financed by state taxpayers.

Much research over the years has made the link between investing in high-quality preschool and reduced costs in remedial education and incarcerations.

“A critical time to shape productivity is from birth to age 5 when the brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life,” said James J. Heckman a University of Chicago economics professor and Nobel laureate in economics in the report “Invest in Early Childhood Development.”

“Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability- character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens,” Heckman said.

It’s easier to teach young children these skills than to fix problems later on. Research shows that kids who attend preschool have a greater likelihood of graduating from high school. The National Institute for Early Childhood Education Research found that a 5 percent increase in male high school graduation rates could save California $753 million in annual incarceration costs and crime-related expenditures.

Deborah Stipek, professor at the Stanford University School of Education, said standards for kindergarten are much higher now than they were decades ago.  Now kindergarteners have to do the work that was formerly reserved for first grade.

“Kindergarten used to be your time to prepare for real school but now real school is starting in kindergarten,” she said. “We’ve created a need for kids to have the time to prepare for kindergarten.”

Transitional kindergarten gives the children the gift of time. As an example, at the Orchard Elementary transitional kindergarten class, the teacher is able to spend time reviewing one letter of the alphabet a week rather than one letter a day.

In one visit to the class, the teacher instructed the children how to write the letter T – “it’s a straight line down and give it a hat.” She kept the wiggly students’ interest by leading them in a series of fun songs, dances and games.

At another program at Sonoma Elementary School on the other side of Modesto, teacher Grace Berry has a lot more time to teach the children about the seasons, the days of the week and holidays.

“It’s a great opportunity to make school and learning fun before the tough academic stuff sets in,” Berry said. “We’re not rigid. We’re very free flow.”

Implementing transitional kindergarten statewide for all 4-year-olds, however, is easier said than done. Modesto City Schools district, for instance, is concerned about finding enough classroom space. Currently, the district only offers transitional kindergarten at two of its 22 elementary schools (busing is provided).

Ginger Johnson, associate superintendent of education services for Modesto City Schools, questions the wisdom of drastically expanding the program.

“It’s better to do a program well than to dilute it across the board,” she said.

Another concern is about the lowering of age for students to begin academics. While preparation for school is great, there is the question of “When can a child be a child?” Johnson said.

But Dede Baker, director of elementary education for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, said it’s not such a bad thing to have standards for the kids. “Students can accomplish them,” she said. “It’s all about the instruction. It’s meeting kids where they are.”

One of the best benefits of transitional kindergarten is that it helps increase student vocabulary, said Laura Wharff, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Sylvan Union School District in Modesto. Kindergarten students today tend to have a much smaller vocabulary than they did years ago. She attributes the decline to working parents not being able to talk to children as much and setting them in front of a TV.

As it stands now, only half of low-income children age 3 and 4 have access to any preschool program whether it’s Head Start or the California State Preschool Program. There isn’t enough funding available to pay for all the kids who want to attend and there are always waiting lists.

“The statistics are abysmal,” said Molly Tafoya, senior communications manager of Early Edge California, a group that works to help young children get necessary educational experiences. “We are not doing what we need to do to serve those who need it most.”

Stanford University research shows that by age 2, low-income children are 6 months behind in language development as compared to higher-income peers. By age 5, low-income children fall more than 2 years behind.

Baker, the director of elementary education from Stanislaus County Office of Education, said transitional kindergarten can provide some of those needed skills.

“Clearly when students come into kindergarten more prepared, they are more successful,” she said.

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