The 5-year-olds making animal puppets in a West Oakland classroom think they're just doing fun arts and crafts, but they're also the newest recruits in a kindergarten "boot camp" that teaches them essential skills they'll need when they start school in the fall.

These students, who haven't previously attended preschool, are attending a summer bridge program aimed at providing a crash course on all things kindergarten. The free programs, held in dozens of counties throughout the state, focus on developing skills children need to succeed in the classroom, like how to wait their turn, raise a hand to answer a question or ask for help, play cooperatively with classmates and deal with being away from family.

These may seem like simple tasks, but research shows that children with no preschool experience struggle with these school-going fundamentals and enter kindergarten academically and socially behind their preschooled peers.

"Having patience and resilience is a precondition for more sustained learning," said Oakland first-grade teacher Jason Polastri, who is teaching at a summer bridge program in West Oakland.

He said he sees students entering his first-grade classroom without the basic social skills necessary to succeed in school.

"Even as an adult, we don't want to go into something with no experience of what we'll be doing," said Cherelyn Hunt, the early childhood education manager for First 5 Solano County, one of the umbrella organizations that help fund the programs at public school campuses. "So the idea that we would send a little kid to school with no experience of what they'll be doing is overwhelming."

A shortage of publicly funded preschool spots means that not every eligible California child will attend a state preschool or Head Start program before enrolling in kindergarten. And the high cost of private preschool can be a barrier for many middle-class families. The summer bridge programs are often the only option for some.

The mostly half-day programs for 4- and 5-year-olds who will be eligible to attend kindergarten the following fall can run from two to six weeks depending on the county.

Prep work

Much of the evidence that summer bridge programs work is anecdotal. Kindergarten teachers often say they can "just tell right away" when a child has been to preschool. A study of 828 summer preschool participants in Kern County last summer found that the program did have a clear effect. Children at all five elementary schools that hosted the program showed significant improvement in math, reading and social skills according to pre- and post-tests.

Most classes are located at district schools and led by at least one certified K-12 teacher from that district. The student-to-teacher ratios are kept at the preschool level of eight students to one teacher, instead of the higher kindergarten ratios, which can reach 32 students per teacher.

Polastri became interested in working at the summer program, for which he is paid his standard hourly wage, because so many of his first-grade students were showing up to class without the basic social and emotional skills they needed to learn. Some of his students were not able to take turns or work through minor problems, Polastri said, which can lead to frustration and upset feelings.

"There's a limited amount of time (in class) and if students are spending most of their time upset, it's hard to learn," Polastri said.

On a recent Wednesday, Polastri helped children make animal puppets out of paper bags at a summer bridge program at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland.

Looking disconsolately at her blank bag, Na'Khia Thompson, 5, told Polastri, one of two teachers in the program, that she didn't know what a zebra's mouth looked like. Polastri, who teaches first grade at nearby Lafayette Elementary School during the school year, brought her a picture book the class had read earlier and helped her find a drawing of a zebra that she could use as inspiration.

'Last-minute' intervention

County-based First 5 commissions provide the bulk of money for these summer programs. The commissions, funded by a tobacco tax approved by voters in 1998, focus on supporting programs for children from infancy to age 5. For the summer bridge programs, the commissions partner with local school districts, which provide classrooms and administrative support. Some districts also provide additional financial support if First 5 funding isn't enough.

A survey from 2011 found that 35 of the state's 58 counties had summer bridge programs in place. Costs vary by county but generally run from around $100 to $400 per student per summer, according to the survey.

In Oakland, the 13-year-old program was so well-loved that when the county's First 5 program wasn't able to cover all nine summer preschool classrooms, the district found funding within its regular operating budget to cover four of those programs. In total, about $60,000 is spent in Oakland to serve 150 children.

As for the students in the Oakland summer preschool program, many are already pros at understanding some of the other critical elements of school.

While putting the finishing touches on her zebra puppet, Na'Khia confided that she was most nervous about getting up early for kindergarten in the fall. "My daddy woke me up today and I was still sleepy when I came to school," she said with a frown.

But Tatiana Johnson, 5, is excited. And she needed no more than a second of consideration to determine what she is most looking forward to about starting kindergarten: "I like recess," she said.

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education for EdSource Today. EdSource Today is the journalism arm of EdSource, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1977 to engage Californians on key education challenges. Read more at www.edsource.org.