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The Kindergarten Shock

Like with anything in education, equipping more children to enter kindergarten prepared won't be easy. We could extend transitional kindergarten to all students. We could expand slots for universal preschool and vouchers for good preschools. We could massage the standards. But whatever we do, new parents need to know right away that they must set their kids' educations in motion from the beginning.

This article also appears in San Diego Magazine.

Sally Cox, an East County mother of two, thought she was doing everything right.

She works in education. She has resources. She’s smart. Her son went to a private preschool and did fine there.

But when he entered kindergarten, everything was wrong. Within just a couple of months, the teacher informed her and her husband he was struggling with reading. He was going to be left behind.

It was kindergarten.

Homework (yes, there’s homework) was a miserable experience every day. They switched schools but he was still behind.

Common Core standards for children mean that, in kindergarten, kids must be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”

Obviously other kids could meet the standards but the interventions the schools and the Coxes made didn’t help. Her son hated school.

“He can read. But it’s coming slow. He’s considered well below grade level in first grade. I’m just surprised you could be well below grade level in first grade and still be able to read,” she said on our podcast, Good Schools for All.

She’s not alone, of course. Many of us began learning to read in first grade.

We can debate Common Core and other established standards all we want — and we surely will for some time. For now, they are the standards many of us confront when our children enter kindergarten.

And some of our children are not ready for them.

It’s not just a wealthy versus poor gap, either. Even the most resourceful parents confront a bewildering array of options — and lack of options — for early childcare and preschool.

“For the most part, when a family moves into a community and they have a seventh-grade kid, they know where to go, they know who to ask. It’s not the same if you have a seven-month-old child. It doesn’t matter your socioeconomic background,” said Ida Rose Florez, executive director of the Elementary Institute of Science, and an expert on early childhood education and development.

For people with low incomes or struggling in poverty, it can obviously be much worse.

Only 48 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in San Diego County attend preschool, according to Census data crunched by the group Children Now.

It’s not that everyone needs to go to a preschool. But they need to be on that continuum from infancy, especially if they’re going to attend traditional public schools with the standards as firmly in place as they are.

As Florez pointed out, also on Good Schools for All, children serve up cues from the moment they come into the world — invitations to teach them. When the invitation is taken up, it lays a foundation in the actual shape of their brains. It helps them learn more.

“Learning begets learning,” Florez said.

She used a cycling metaphor. Children who gradually ramp up from infancy ride the bike of life with a wind at their back. But the headwind kids face without early education can be fierce.

California is trying to address the issue. This year the state is investing $500 million more into early childhood education programs. It will increase the number of free preschool slots across the state by 3,000 with promises to increase it by 6,000 more in coming years.

But Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego assemblywoman right in the middle of that issue, said much of the money will go to simply maintaining the quilt of childcare services we have now. The state is increasing the reimbursement for these caregivers — everything from subsidies for daycare centers to those for grandparents who oversee their children’s children.

The state budget merely stopped the bleeding in this area, Gonzalez said.

“The disparity between those who learn their numbers, learn their letters and study in private preschools and those who start off in kindergarten is getting larger,” she said. “This is a huge issue and if we want to lift up our entire state, it all depends on these years.”

In 2014, though, more than 700 preschool slots in San Diego Unified School District — these are fully subsidized — went unfilled.

It’s not because there are no people living in poverty. There are many. It’s mostly because some of the preschool programs were only half-day, which makes it difficult for parents to rely on them for childcare. And the income levels required to qualify are extremely low. Participants must prove they were poor constantly. Parents had an incentive to reject raises at work so they wouldn’t lose the slot.

It was not exactly a good incentive. None of those requirements have changed.

One major program the state put up rather quietly was the so-called transitional kindergarten program.

Kindergarten starts when a child turns 5. It’s been that way for a long time. If your child is 5 when the school year starts, you can enroll him or her in kindergarten.

Now, however, California has offered a select group of kids an entire extra year of schooling to help them with this very issue of ramping up into kindergarten. It’s called transitional kindergarten, or TK.

How do you get into this elite club? Simple, when you go about conceiving your children, try to do it between late December and early March. Specifically, you’ll want your child to be born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. It’s like playing the shuffle board of life – you must push it just right.

If you win, and your kids are not quite 5 years old when the school year starts, they can enter transitional kindergarten — the government has offered these lucky children a free extra year of early-childhood learning.

It’s a windfall for parents who qualify. Kidsdata.org, a project of the Lucile Parker Foundation, used a market survey from 2014 to estimate the average cost of preschool in San Diego at just below $10,000. There are not a lot of people who can pass up a chance to save $10,000.

The program has also become a kind of featherbed for parents who might have, in the past, considered redshirting their children. Redshirting is when they hold them back for a year — a common fad, especially for wayward boys. But the evidence is unclear on whether it’s a good thing.

Redshirting used to be the domain of the privileged: You have to, after all, be able to afford an extra year of daycare or preschool to keep your kids out of elementary school.

A mixed transitional kindergarten/kindergarten class, however, is a place where kids can go if they might have otherwise been redshirted. They do well, and they can move on to first grade. They do OK and they can go to kindergarten.

I know this because this is what my son did. Born a couple weeks too early for transitional kindergarten, that’s where he ended up.

It’s a backdoor way to extend universal preschool, and it has also helped ratchet up expectations.

In fact, Cox, the East County mother, told me teachers initially blamed the struggles her son was facing on his own lack of participation in transitional kindergarten.

There was only one problem: He was not eligible for transitional kindergarten.

This year, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed to eliminate TK and instead send the money and some of that extra preschool/childcare budget to school districts, with a mandate that they use it to address the needs of poor communities.

That did not happen. And it remains an entitlement for those who happen to be born in the TK window.

That’s nice, for them. Unfortunately, even if everyone had all the resources they wanted, there remains a major disconnect between school and preschool and daycare.

Right now, preschools generally have an 8-to-1 ratio, meaning eight kids for every teacher. But kindergarten, in San Diego, is right now at 24-to-1. It’s a jarring transition.

“There’s nothing magical or scientific that says that 4-year-olds need one teacher for every eight kids but all of a sudden, at age 5 they thrive with 23 or 24 kids per teacher. We treat it as though there’s a huge change in the child but really it’s a huge change in the system,” said Laura Kohn, executive director of the Education Synergy Alliance in San Diego.

And so, many kids run into the same problems Cox’s son did. They have a play-based preschool. They enjoy it. Then they find themselves in a much louder, more regimented, busier classroom with worksheets, homework and nationwide expectations.

Innovative charter schools are trying different formulas. They’re embracing project learning, technology and more free time. They’re disavowing homework. But those efforts have yet to scale out to the broader districts.

Like with anything in education, the solutions are not easy. Yes, we could extend TK to all students. Yes, we could expand slots for universal preschool and vouchers for good preschools. Yes, we could address the standards and make sure they’re not so academic and try to preserve some of the playing and project-based culture from preschools that kids may need.

But new parents need to know right away that they must put in motion the education of their kids from the beginning. They hear all the time that the time will fly by. It does, and before you know it, the children are expected to read with purpose and understanding.

If they don’t, their parents will end up in that weird world Cox found herself — a place where you’ve been informed something is wrong with your child but it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do about it.

Cox’s daughter is now about to enter kindergarten. Having experienced what they did with their son, she and her husband searched for more academic preschools that might better prepare their daughter. Their son had a great first-grade teacher but is still behind.

They didn’t find a more academic preschool for their daughter. She wrote in an email to me that she did something she once thought unthinkable.

“I have considered hiring a tutor to help my daughter prepare for kindergarten!!!”

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