Friday, January 27, 2012

Kindergarten? Transitional class? More preschool? SHIFTING STATE LAW AND BUDGET HAS PARENTS CONFUSED

By Sharon Noguchi | Silicon Valley Mercury News |

1/26/2012 10:36:35 PM PST  ::  For decades, California parents with kids nearing their fifth birthday knew that right about now, they needed to start thinking about registering for kindergarten.

But a new law, a funding crisis and California's Byzantine budgeting ways have turned that certainty on its head. Not only parents, but also schools and even state officials are confused about who can start school in August.

It used to be that children turning 5 years old by Dec. 2 could enroll in kindergarten that year. A new state law rolls back that cutoff date to Nov. 1 this year and orders districts to offer a year of "transitional kindergarten" for children left out.

Then, earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown cut the funding for that program in his proposed budget.

That threw school officials for a loop: On one hand, the state still requires them to offer the class; on the other, they risk receiving no funding for it, a possibility none of them can afford.

"It's so confusing right now," said Terry Koehne of the San Ramon Valley school district. "It's hard to make sense of where we are."

What to do? Some districts, such as Lafayette, are enrolling November-birthday children anyway for the fall, telling parents the class could be canceled. Others, such as San Francisco, dropped plans, and some, such as San Jose Unified, have expanded the new class to all children born in the fall -- hoping the state will end up paying.

"I was definitely disappointed," said Gilroy parent Kerry Drago, who had been hoping to enroll her daughter in the transitional program that Brown wants to cut.

The uncertainty has left parents, especially those of the 40,000 children born in November 2007, frustrated and anxious.

With the window for kindergarten registration opening now, parents of late-birthday children are trying to decide whether to register for kindergarten, transitional kindergarten or look for another year of preschool or child care.

The Legislature won't resolve the uncertainty soon, and parents could be in a holding pattern, perhaps until school starts.

Elaine Marshall went to get information on signing up her daughter for kindergarten, and she found San Jose Unified was promoting a class that it admits may not materialize if Brown gets his way.

"I'm trying to get my daughter enrolled in kindergarten and keeping my fingers crossed," Marshall said.

Opening transitional kindergarten involves more than adding a classroom or making a subsection of regular kindergarten classes. In elementary schools, "the playhouse is gone, a lot of the things you might have used -- building blocks -- are no longer there. You've given them to preschools," said Pat Lamson, interim superintendent of the Loma Prieta Joint Union Elementary School District, in the mountains above Los Gatos.

"This is bad for kids and bad for schools," state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said about Brown's proposal, which would save $223 million. Simitian pushed through the law to change the starting age for kindergarten.

But some agree with the governor.

Transitional kindergarten is unnecessary and should be the first on the chopping block, San Jose parent John Ryan said.

He called it "a government preschool subsidy for kids born between September and November that isn't available to kids born the other nine months of the year, whose parents pay for preschool on their own."

Others say that the class is a luxury that California can't afford when so many other worthy programs are being cut.

But educators insist transitional kindergarten is a good investment, preparation for the increasingly academic focus in kindergarten. "I see it as a way to support student success in school," said Elizabeth Schuck, assistant superintendent in the Cabrillo Unified School District, which serves the Coastside area in San Mateo County.

She pointed out that it's the first time the state has added a grade level to public education since 1891. "Kindergarten teachers have long said we've needed a program such as this, focused on the developmental needs of young kindergartners."

Kids unprepared for kindergarten can't sit still, have a hard time focusing and socializing, much less learning to read and add. They risk falling behind for their whole academic career, teachers say.

The uncertainty may not end this year. In 2013, the state's kindergarten cutoff date moves back another month to Oct. 1, then in 2014 to Sept. 1 -- setting the stage for more wrangling.

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