(This article appeared recently in the Orange County Register. It discusses Senate Bill 1881 awaiting the governor's signature to become law. Last summer I traveled to Sacramento to lobby for the passage of this bill. It's something the California Kindergarten Teachers' Association has been working on for decades.)
By TERYL ZARNOW
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
As I watched my son standing at the end of the kindergarten line -- flapping both his mouth and his arms -- I knew I had made the right decision.
My eldest was a November baby. Under state law, so long as he turned 5 by Dec. 2, he could have started kindergarten at age 4. I was a new mother, but I knew better than to send him too early.
Twenty-two years ago he started school at 5 years old, and good thing. As it was, he lagged in scissor skills and he was last in his class to learn to tie his shoes. (Although he still wraps the lace around two rabbit ears, this has not affected his success in law school.)
In preschool, I wanted the teacher to love my child. In kindergarten, I knew the teacher would grade him. I volunteered in the classroom hoping, perhaps, the teacher would at least love me. With three children, I went to kindergarten three times.
Even then -- when kindergarten still had a play kitchen in one corner -- it was asking a lot of a 4-year-old. Students spent a week studying the letter "A." They traced it and glued rice to outline its shape. On Friday, they ate apples.
Most states require a child to turn 5 by Sept. 1, but California is one of only four states enrolling children younger.
This year, after 13 tries, the state lesgislature passed a measure to change the cutoff date from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.
It's about time.
In Danielle Zavala's class at Horace Mann Elementary School in Anaheim, kindergarten feels like postgraduate work for preschool. Apples still get a lot of attention -- but not as the letter of the week. Apple is a word in a sentence.
Small groups of students rotate to their teacher where they read and write.
They build sentences starting with "I," (the "high frequency word" of the day; there are 29 more.) They read it and write it - "a stick" with "a hat" and "shoes." Each child then chooses from the list to complete sentences that begin with the words "I see..."
Irwin Mancilla reads his finished paper: "I see a red car."
"Very good," Zavala beams. "You're reading."
The first group traces words, but the next is able to write their words independently. Another group only creates one sentence all together.
In this classroom, six of 33 students are 4 years old. They could be as much as a year younger than the oldest students. One was born on Dec. 2.
"Usually," Zavala notes, "the students with challenges have a fall birthday."
Her own son has an October birthday, and she did not send him to kindergarten until he was nearly six.
Later, the class will describe the color of apples, write a sentence about it and count the words in that sentence. Each child then will read it aloud before leaving the rug.
It's intense – and this is only day 27 for this kindergarten track.
The state revised its curriculum standards for kindergarten about 10 years ago, leaving very little familiar to me except for stories, songs and recess.
The morning rushes onward, a train with a schedule to keep. It includes a timed math paper – touching and counting. Later, the class reviews numbers. Today they start studying the teens.
State standards include early foundation skills for algebra and geometry. So a new concept this day is "more" and "fewer."
Zavala, a 14-year classroom veteran, teaches and tests to the standards. We expect a lot from kindergarten, she agrees.
"Each year the expectations increase. You teach things a lot sooner."
Do we expect too much?
"It's do-able because it's what I have to do."
The color of the day is yellow, and Marcos Briones colors his duck with brute force.
"It's hard work," he says, pressing harder.
Yes, it is.
The point is not to start school already behind. Linda deCoup, a former teacher and administrator turned tutor in Mission Viejo, says parents ask her to tutor kindergarteners in reading. She also works with children who started school too soon and stayed at a disadvantage.
"They get put in the lower groups and that follows them all the way through school...that affects their self-esteem." Teachers can name the groups whatever they want, but eventually everyone knows that "purple" is the slow group.
Educators generally agree that extra time does not guarantee kindergarten readiness. Just as important is what you do with that time. An extra year at home with no enrichment offers little preparation.
"That extra year must have enriching activities," deCoup stresses.
In Zavala's class, some children trace their names, while others write them independently. She says that whether a child attended preschool matters as much as age.
That's why SB 1381, written by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, addresses the larger issue.
It uses the money saved by fewer kindergarteners to fund transitional kindergarten classes for younger students. For families that find preschool unaffordable, this two-year program is perfect.
The new age requirement, affecting about 120,000 children per year, would be phased in over three years starting in 2012. If the governor signs it, state law will finally catch up to what many parents already do: give their kids an extra year.
In Room 58 at Horace Mann School, expectations are high. Kindergarten is school without training wheels.
As the children line up for recess and their turn at the coveted tricycles, I'm kneeling to tie sneakers.
Students no longer learn how to tie their shoes in kindergarten.
It's not in the state standards.