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Transitional kindergarten is a go.

After being signed into law in 2010, the program designed to give "young fives" an extra year of kindergarten was dragged through months of budget wrangling only to emerge just as it went in: the law of the land to be implemented when school starts next month.

"It looks like we have gone full circle," said Jeff Bell, director of management consulting services for School Services of California, an education finance advocacy group in Sacramento.

But months of uncertainty have left school districts struggling to come up with a distinct curriculum with limited funds and parents increasingly frustrated by unanswered questions about what is best for their child.

"Almost every week for the past two months before the school year ended, I kept going in to say, 'Hey, have you heard anything new?' " said Santa Rosa resident Saul Castaneda, whose daughter Gabriela will turn 5 on Nov. 9.

Traditionally, California schools have opened kindergarten classrooms to students who turn 5 by Dec. 2. That will change this fall, when school districts begin implementing a three-year plan that gradually will push up the cutoff date to Sept. 1.

The changes are meant to end California's policy of allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten and reduce the span of ages in classrooms that often would have a 4-year-old sitting next to a 6-year-old. The change puts California in line with the rest of the nation for kindergarten cutoff age.

But the law that changed the cutoff date also mandated that districts offer "transitional kindergarten" to those children whose birthdays fall between September and December and had historically been allowed to enroll in kindergarten.

That three-month cohort of kids must now be offered a distinct curriculum created to accommodate younger students who are not deemed developmentally ready for traditional kindergarten.

Help before kindergarten

Backers say it's the closest California will get to universal preschool and will offer some students learning time before tackling kindergarten, which has become more academically rigorous in the past decade.

Originally pitched as a money-saver by shrinking the number of kindergartners served statewide, teachers unions pushed back and eventually the pre-kindergarten program became the law of the land.

But others say the program puts an additional burden on budget-strapped school districts to come up with a two-year, distinct program even when only two or three kids meet the criteria.

The curriculum specifics are left largely to the discretion of each district -- meaning programs will vary widely up and down the state.

Some smaller school districts will place younger students in the same classrooms as older kindergartners, while many larger districts are creating specialized classrooms with teachers that solely focus on the younger students.

"I'm absolutely convinced (transitional kindergarten) is going to be a game changer, and California's youngest kids will be off to a strong start," Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said in a statement about the bill he authored in 2010.

Far more rigorous

Backers of the plan say kindergarten is far more rigorous than it was prior to the implementation of higher academic targets and some kids need an extra boost to achieve success later in their school careers.

Under the new law, students who qualify for transitional kindergarten will spend a year in that class then move onto traditional kindergarten the following year.

Beginning this fall, all school districts in California are required to provide a transitional kindergarten program for students who turn 5 between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2. In 2013-14, enrollment opens for those born between Oct. 2 and Dec. 2. In 2014-15, all kids who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 will be admitted.

Many districts have bypassed the three-year implementation plan and are offering the transitional kindergarten program to all students who will turn 5 from Sept. 2 through Dec. 2.

Welcomed by teachers

"This is something kindergarten teachers have wanted for a long time," said Kim Solomon, a veteran kindergarten teacher at Proctor Terrace Elementary School who helped design Santa Rosa City Schools' transitional kindergarten program.

Solomon, who began her career as a first-grade teacher, said the current kindergarten curriculum is what she was teaching first-graders years ago. In kindergarten, some are not ready for that accelerated curriculum, she said.

"We push them and it just makes school a struggle instead of something they will be successful at," she said.

Mom of three Donna Prak of Santa Rosa will pay for another year in preschool because she doesn't want her son, who was born Nov. 23, subjected to a change in schools once he leaves preschool. She wants all three of her kids to eventually enroll in Windsor's Cali Calmecac Language Academy, where no transitional kindergarten program is offered.

"I don't want my son to go to another school, make friends and then pull him out," she said.

Castaneda said his daughter is ready for kindergarten

now and will likely be bored in an untested transitional program.

"As a dad, I feel really disappointed, especially because she is ready to move into kindergarten and learn something new," he said.

"What is she going to learn? That is my priority, to have her get the best education she can and not just to be punished because she was born a few days after the cutoff day."

More academics

But some educators say the establishment of transitional kindergarten adds to an already accelerated curriculum required of younger and younger students.

"Kindergarten is not kindergarten anymore; it's much more academic," said Geyserville Superintendent Joe Carnation.

"I understand the needs of a lot of folks out there in the public who think that we are falling further and further behind, but I'm not sure we are really doing the right thing when we load these kids up like this and expect so much of these kids," Carnation said.

Diane Rose, owner of Montessori Fun preschool in Windsor, agreed that kindergarten is more like first grade was a decade ago, but she said kids should be enrolled in a preparatory program based on readiness, not their birthdays.

"It's really crazy, because (the cutoff date) has nothing to do with developmental readiness," she said. "I think we are really rushing our kids and I don't think it's necessary."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.

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