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California children must be 5 to start kindergarten

By Daniel Bohm | 8 Oct 2010

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Four years old is too young to go to public school in California, according to a new state law that was the brainchild of two Palo Alto teachers.

The Kindergarten Readiness law, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week, will require that students turn 5 by the start of September to enroll in school. The cutoff date for admission has been Dec. 2. The change is expected to be phased in over three years and a new program, called Transitional Kindergarten, is planned.

Walter Hays Elementary School teacher Diana Argenti, above, was instrumental in the formation of The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010.

For Palo Alto elementary school teachers Diana Argenti and Natalie Bivas, the measure they championed has been a long time coming. Argenti and Bivas grew tired of watching children born in the fall consistently lag behind classmates and leave kindergarten ill prepared for the rest of their school years.

Argenti, in her 18th year as a kindergarten teacher  at Walter Hays Elementary School, said she had three consecutive classes with young boys born in the fall who just couldn’t cut it in kindergarten.

“One little guy would say that he was so exhausted and that he just couldn’t handle the length of the day or the education,” she said.

Argenti and Bivas, a reading specialist and English language development instructor at Palo Verde Elementary School, collected signatures from 289 teachers on a letter proposing a minimum age cutoff for kindergarteners. They presented it to state Sen. Joe Simitian, whose district includes  much of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Simitian took their idea to Sacramento, he said, to stop “starting kids too early to succeed.”

Moving the enrollment cutoff to Sept. 1, which aligns California law with that of 46 other states, was necessary because of the evolving kindergarten curriculum, Argenti said.

State Sen. Joe Simitian sponosored the kindergarten age legislation.

“Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be,” she said. “It’s not just arts and crafts. There isn’t nap time. Now we are doing actual reading, and the students are expected to meet certain standards throughout the year.”

The new state law will require students born in the fall to attend Transitional Kindergarten a year before entering public school. The transitional program is intended to provide kids time to play, something Argenti considers crucial to the development of a child’s mind.

Kindergarten enrollment in California is projected to decrease by 1.5 million annually as a result of the law, saving an estimated $700 million each year for 13 years, according to Simitian. That money will go towards funding Transitional Kindergarten and not to the state’s dwindling general fund, a small move that Simitian believes can help improve cash-strapped public schools.

“Schools are about 20 percent underfunded for what we would otherwise consider the minimum level of funding for education,” he said on Sept. 30 at a town hall meeting in Los Altos. “This is something we can do to improve schools even in a budget crunch.”

To account for smaller kindergarten classes, some teachers will likely be reassigned to Transitional Kindergarten.  Individual class sizes are expected to remain the same—22 or 23 in Palo Alto kindergartens.

While Argenti is thrilled the law is taking effect, she wishes all students would have the opportunity to go to Transitional Kindergarten, not just those born in the fall. She also believes the law will relieve stress on parents who agonize over when to start their children in school.

Parents unhappy with the new law can apply for an exemption to have their children start kindergarten early, according to Simitian. Argenti hopes that provision will be used sparingly, especially in Palo Alto where many children already attend something similar to Transitional Kindergarten.

“Some of these younger kids were feeling not smart and struggling later on, so I’m glad they did something to put them on the fast-track to success,” Argenti said.

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