Putting kitchens into kindergarten

Kindergarten teacher Paulie Esquivel looked around the model classroom and started taking a mental inventory – in reverse. Dress-up area; she used to have that. Puppet theater; that, too, was once in her class. Ditto for the sand table, paint and easel, and water table.

Puppet Theater in TK model classroom (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.
Puppet Theater in TK model classroom (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.

“To me, it’s what kindergarten used to be: fun and exciting,” said Esquivel, who teaches in the Planada Elementary School District, about eight miles south of Merced. “You don’t see all this any more.”

In the fourteen years since she started teaching, kindergarten has become first grade. There’s a lot more paper and pencil work and listening to the teacher, and a lot less of what Esquivel describes as the “creative, artsy, fun, play stuff.”

This week she got a glimpse of the future at a transitional kindergarten summit in Sacramento, and it looked a bit more like the past. Transitional kindergarten (TK) is  what regular kindergarten used to be.  The model classroom had a dress-up area where kids could be firefighters, police officers and doctors.  It had giant floor

Play kitchen in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.
Play kitchen in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.

puzzles, puppets, an area to build cities and bridges with wooden blocks, and a kitchen with sturdy wooden appliances for playing pretend and baking mud pies.

“This clearly is a classroom for young fives, you can tell that the minute you walk in the door,” said State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) when he toured the model TK classroom at the summit.  Simitian is author of SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moves up the kindergarten cut-off date from December 2nd to September 1st, phasing it in over three years, so that by 2014 children will have to be five years old to enter kindergarten.  (Read our article about TK research here).

Kindergarten not spared standards and assessment

“The moment of clarity for me was as I was working on this legislation, I was looking at a kindergarten report

State Senator Joe Simitian in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) click to enlarge.
State Senator Joe Simitian in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) click to enlarge.

card and came across the assessment for algebra skills and I thought, ‘This is not the kindergarten that most of us remember so fondly,'” said Simitian.

By requiring children to be five when they start their formal education, Simitian and many educators hope the kids will be mature enough to sit still for longer periods of time so they can concentrate on learning. Transitional kindergarten was the necessary hook to get parents of children with late fall birthdays on board, who otherwise saw the prospect of paying for another year of childcare or preschool.

“I think it’s a really great idea,” said Ann Villegas, a kindergarten teacher in the San Lorenzo Unified School District.  “I have thirteen children in my classroom right now that started as four year olds, and I feel like it would be a huge service to them to be able to have that extra time to mature a little and be ready for the academics of kindergarten.”

Villegas has been teaching for ten years, so she never knew the kindergartens of yore, but she says her principal gives her

Dress up area in Model TK Classroom (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.
Dress up area in Model TK Classroom (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.

leeway and a nearby storage room.  “So I can bring my kitchen in or my puppet theater in.  I can bring them for an afternoon and then put them back [in storage],” Villegas explained.

San Lorenzo Unified is starting TK next year and Villegas wants to teach it.  “I think I’ve always had a developmental approach to teaching and this just feeds right into it and allows me to teach my students how I think they’ll best learn,” she explained.

Although the official launch date for TK is next fall, more than twenty California school districts have already started offering the classes, with promising results.  Magnolia School District in Anaheim has four classes serving 100 young fives and may open a fifth class next year.

Eighty-five percent of Magnolia’s students are English learners, and many are poor and homeless, said Jeannine Campbell, director of early childhood education for the district.  So even for their older five-year-olds, meeting the state standards for kindergarten is a challenge.  Consider this requirement for mathematical reasoning: 

1.0 Students make decisions about how to set up a problem:
1.1 Determine the approach, materials, and strategies to be used.
1.2 Use tools and strategies, such as manipulatives or sketches, to model problems.

2.0 Students solve problems in reasonable ways and justify their reasoning:
2.1  Explain the reasoning used with concrete objects and/or pictorial representations.
2.2 Make precise calculations and check the validity of the results in the context of the problem.

Campbell said they started TK as a proactive effort. “We really believe that prevention is far better than intervention and remediation,” she said.  Over the five years of the program, they’ve learned lessons and made refinements that they shared at the summit to help other districts avoid the same snags. For instance, Magnolia started TK as a full-day program, but quickly realized the children couldn’t handle a six-hour day.

“Their little four-year-old bodies just were not ready for that,” said Campbell.  “We found children were taking naps on the carpet and it wasn’t the best learning environment.”  They changed it to half a day in the fall and a full day after winter break, when all the children have turned five.

The great budget unknown

Amid the excitement at the summit, there were also some anxious rumblings that, faced with an ongoing budget deficit, Gov. Brown may be tempted to delete funding for TK in his January budget proposal.

The way TK is funded, there’s no cost to the state for the first 13 years because all the children in the new classes would have been in traditional kindergarten otherwise.  Every year until they graduate from high school, paying for this group of about 126,000 students will be a wash.

But if TK’s budget appropriation was eliminated, and the new enrollment ages kept in place, then the state could capture an additional $700 million.  Of course districts

Transitional Kindergarten Model Classroom. (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.
Transitional Kindergarten Model Classroom. (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.

probably wouldn’t save any money because it’s unlikely they would lose enough students to warrant dropping an entire class, so they’d still have all the fixed costs but with less money due to the drop in ADA funds.

It’s hard to know what to make of the talk, however, because there’s been no hint of such a proposal from the Governor’s office.  “It’s a rumor.  There’s always somebody floating an idea, that’s one the scary things,” said Cathy Wietstock, who oversees TK for the Orange County Department of Education.   But she acknowledged that even without any indication at all from Gov. Brown that TK is on the table, district officials are worried about moving ahead with the program.  “They’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, is this really happening?’  Yes it is,” said Wietstock. “The law is there, we need to comply with the law, so the train has left the station”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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