Soon, many children in California will have two years to learn how to share, count and sound out words before they move on to first grade.

A new state law, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, gradually will move the birthday cutoff date for new kindergartners from December to September. The law also requires districts -- beginning next year -- to offer a new grade level for children with fall birthdays who are too young to start kindergarten. Researchers and advocates say transitional kindergarten, as it's called, will better prepare children to be successful in school.

In California, where education cutbacks have become the norm, some marvel that the state is creating something new for kids.

"It's one of those little bright lights in an otherwise dark scene," said Stanford University education professor Deborah Stipek, an expert on early education.

Unlike universal preschool, a ballot measure rejected by California voters in 2006, not all children will have access to the two-year kindergarten program. Only children with birthdays between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 -- those who would have been eligible for kindergarten under the old system -- will be guaranteed a slot once the program is fully implemented in 2014. This coming fall, when the kindergarten entry date becomes Nov. 1, school districts must offer the new program to children who turn 5 between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2.


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Some districts might open the two-year option to older children, however, if their families don't feel they are ready for kindergarten.

All 700 California school districts that operate elementary schools are gearing up for the change. Each one is creating its own curriculum.

Pilot programs

About 20 districts statewide, including Oakland, San Francisco, San Ramon Valley and Gilroy, are testing transitional kindergarten this year; some already have been offering a similar program called "Young Fives."

San Ramon hasn't had trouble convincing families to participate. The district enrolled 104 students in its pilot program this year and even had a short waiting list, said Terry Koehne, the district's spokesman. Next year, he said, the district expects to more than double its transitional kindergarten enrollment and add about six more schools.

In Yahumara Cuellar's class at Oakland's Greenleaf Elementary School, the children sing songs, listen to stories and take part in short discussions about friendship and conflict resolution. "Eyes are watching, ears are listening, voice is quiet, body is calm," they sang to the tune of the "Frère Jacques" nursery rhyme. "This is how we listen, this is how we listen, at the rug, at the rug."

Cuellar said the new program combines an emphasis on social development and kindergarten readiness with some of the academic skills that kindergartners are expected to learn. While songs, story time and free play might sound synonymous with kindergarten, the pace of today's kindergarten curriculum leaves less room for those activities.

Each week, Cuellar's children learn a new letter in the alphabet. Kindergartners at the same school cover two letters a day.

Kindergarten wasn't always that rigorous. When Diana Argenti started teaching in 1988, she said, "Kindergarten was very much like preschool."

Now, Argenti said, 4- and 5-year-olds learn numbers up to 30, not just to 10. They are expected to take reading-level tests and write independently -- things first-graders used to do. "For the really, really tiny kids, a lot of them just aren't ready," she said.

Law signed in 2010

Argenti, who teaches kindergarten at Walter Hays Elementary School in Palo Alto, was concerned about the long-term effects today's kindergarten schedule might be having on those children. She worried that some would forever struggle to catch up with their classmates. In 2009, Argenti wrote a letter to state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and it caught the lawmaker's attention. Simitian wrote the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which was signed into law in 2010.

"I didn't expect to get a response at all," Argenti said. "I was really surprised."

Melissa Vernon is grateful. Her son, Evan, doesn't turn 5 until Nov. 28, and she did not want him in a classroom with children a full year older. She and her husband couldn't afford to send him to preschool, she said, so she was reluctantly planning to keep him at home. Then, this summer, a friend told her about a new program for children her son's age.

At Antonio Del Buono Elementary in Gilroy, Evan is sounding out words, doing math problems and learning to talk about his emotions.

"It has made a great difference for us," Vernon said. "It still gives him time to grow, because he still is so little, but it also gives him structure."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

transitional kindergarten
A new state law, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, gradually will move the birthday cutoff date for new kindergartners from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. Children who turn 5 between those dates will have the option to enroll in transitional kindergarten instead, the first of a two-year kindergarten program. This coming fall, California school districts will be required to offer the new grade level.
To be old enough for kindergarten, children must turn 5 on or before these dates:
Current entry date: Dec. 2
2012-13: Nov. 1
2013-14: Oct. 1
2014-15: Sept. 1
For more information about
transitional kindergarten, go to
www.tkcalifornia.org.