After a monthslong guessing game about its fate, a new, two-year kindergarten program will open in hundreds of California school districts in August.
Transitional kindergarten, as it's called, is an extra year of school for "fall babies," the roughly 125,000 children who turn 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2. The mandate is written into a law that will gradually move the kindergarten entry date from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1; transitional kindergarten is for children whose birthdays fall in-between. This year, children must turn 5 by Nov. 1 to enroll in a standard kindergarten class.
If creating a new grade level from scratch weren't a big enough task, a budget proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown added a major wrinkle to the endeavor. In January, Brown announced he thought the state should eliminate the mandate -- an idea state lawmakers rejected last month, keeping the law intact.
"We worked very hard to keep it in the budget," said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord.
Still, the program was up in the air for more than five months. Some districts, including Oakland, San Lorenzo and Campbell Union in San Jose, proceeded with their preparations despite the uncertainty, banking on a little-used provision in state law that allows districts to enroll children in an extra year of kindergarten on a case-by-case basis. Campbell Union began enrolling children in transitional kindergarten programs at three schools. Oakland Unified, which ran a pilot program
"We kept planning, even through the chaos," said Barbara DeBarger, director of elementary education for the San Lorenzo Unified School District.
Others, such as the Alameda and San Francisco school districts, put their plans on hold or scaled them back, waiting to see if the funding would come through. San Francisco, which had originally planned to offer the program districtwide, is doing so at just five of its elementary schools this fall. Alameda Unified will offer a standard kindergarten curriculum this year, though its classes will include children who turn 5 in November, said Sean McPhetridge, Alameda Unified's assistant superintendent.
In 2013, McPhetridge said, the district aims to launch a transitional kindergarten program -- after having time to develop the new curriculum and train its teachers.
"Because of the funding ambiguity and the fact that the governor and the state Legislature didn't seem to see eye-to-eye with this, nobody was sure," McPhetridge said.
The earlier kindergarten entry date stemmed largely from teachers' concerns that children entering as 4-year-olds were not socially or academically ready for the grade. Still, many educators felt that simply keeping children out of school for another year wouldn't help them succeed, either. Transitional kindergarten provides a slowed-down curriculum with more time for social and emotional development than its traditional counterpart, which has amped up the pace and rigor in recent years.
In recent months, Susan Petersen, director of elementary support for Mt. Diablo Unified in Concord, said she has fielded countless calls from parents, wondering what was happening. Until the state budget was passed last month, she had little to tell them.
"I think this was difficult for many families who were in the position of not knowing whether their child would have a place in the public school system," she said.
The Mt. Diablo school district registered about 165 children in six programs this spring and continued with informational meetings, Petersen said. Still, if funding for transitional kindergarten had not remained in the state budget, the school board would have had to decide whether to offer them after all.
"We're very happy that we don't have to think along those lines," Petersen said.