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New Year, New Grade Level For California Students

Aired 9/7/12 on KPBS News.

One of the biggest changes to California’s schools this fall is the addition of a new grade – transitional kindergarten. The new classes are for students who turn 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2.

The students in Mireya Melendez-Lousteau’s transitional kindergarten huddle around bins filled with picture books for free reading time. But when Bailey McCowan describes the book in her lap, it is clear she isn’t exactly reading.

Mireya Melendez-Lousteau reviews words starting with the letter "B" with her transitional kindergarten class at Chula Vista Hills Elementary School.
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Above: Mireya Melendez-Lousteau reviews words starting with the letter "B" with her transitional kindergarten class at Chula Vista Hills Elementary School.

The four-year-old is looking at a picture of two snowmen – one wearing a crown and the other with alien antenna. She describes the one with the crown and the long of a kingdom, the other, she thinks, looks like a bad guy. And Chula Vista Hills Elementary Principal Monica Sorenson says McCowan's imaginings are an important step in the process of learning to read.

“It’s about learning the concepts of print, making sure they understand that a book opens in the direction that it opens and that the text flows from left to right and that we read the pictures first so that we have some idea of what to expect and make predictions,” Sorenson says.

That’s the idea behind this classroom full of four year olds who, in past years, would have been placed in regular Kindergarten classes -- to give them the opportunity take the early steps that many of California’s youngest students have been missing.

There's a painting station, and an area to build with blocks and play dress-up. The math area has beads and other small manipulatives to help the kids learn counting. Sorenson says it all looks like play and the kids are having fun – but they’re learning, too.

“Y’know, we have kids who have a hard time with their scissors and so forth because we have somewhat let that go – that piece of working with the manipulatives," Sorenson says. "So the lovely thing about this transitional Kindergarten is that they have the opportunity to manipulate so many different things.”

After 21 years of teaching kindergarten Melendez-Lousteau begged to be given one of the new transitional classrooms.

“To go back to my roots, to what I really believe in so strongly – that children at this age need to have the opportunity to have fun in school while they’re learning what school is about,” she says.

When they sit down for a group reading session – the focus on the basics is clear. They're learning about the letter b. Melendez-Lousteau emphasizes the letter every time she uses a word that starts with B, the students sing the sound over and over again to a simple tune and the book of the day os about a brown bear.

If this is how many adults remember their own Kindergarten classes – a quick trip through the office that Melendez-Lousteau shares with Kindergarten teacher Colleen Hill shows just how far traditional Kindergarten has advanced.

Hill's students are learning about sight words - where letters son't make the sounds we would expect them to.

Hill asks the students sitting on the rug in front of her how to spell my. "M-I?" she asks. The class talks about how the letter y is a 'wannabe' - sometimes it wants to be like the letter i, other times it wants to be like the letter e.

Once the students have it down Hill sends them back to their desks, furniture that was no where to be found in the transitional classroom.

Five-year-old Claire Schroeder explains the work she's doing.

“Circling the my words,” she says. Then reads through the small booklet, which consists of sentences that start with "I see my" and then have a picture of something that appears in the picture on the page.

Melendez-Lousteau's goal for her students to be ready to do this kind of work.

“Knowing how to listen, look and learn. Being ready for teacher, being ready to take on the task, being ready to do multi-step functions independently and being able to read a simple sentence and write a simple sentence,” she says.

Right now only students who turn five between Nov. 1 and Dec. 2 are required to go into transitional Kindergarten. Next year it will expand to students with October birthdays and to the September babies after that. So for now Hill’s Kindergarten class still includes a wide age range.

“I have four year old and I have six year olds – it’s quite amazing, because some parents like to hold their students back. It is always interesting and you have to do – like every other grade level – you differentiate," she says. "So – I have a lot of groups. There’s a lot of students in groups that are still learning what an A, B, C is and I have other students that I’m really starting to teach how to read.”

In fact – six of Hill’s students have already had one year of Kindergarten, but were retained because as the youngest students, they didn’t master all of the skills they needed to move on to first grade. Hill knows first hand that starting school early isn’t just about the first years of school, either.

“I have two boys who have gone through [International Baccalaureate}, [Advanced Placement] stuff and it makes a huge difference," she says. "Not just now – it’s when they get their license, when they get to have these classes – oh my heavens, it’s – if you’re giving that child an extra six months it makes the biggest difference in the world.”

In nearly every other state students must be 5 by Sept. 1 to start Kindergarten and Hill thinks the difference six months makes for individual students could matter for the entire state.

“When you compare to other students nationally - it’s not fair because we’ve always had this late birthday. It’s going to have a very positive impact.”

This year’s state budget shortfall nearly put an end to transitional kindergarten before it started. Chula Vista officials say there are no guarantees with the state’s finances – but they are hoping to see what kind of difference the transitional program can make for years to come.

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