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First day of school, ever

Pre-kindergarten program gives children early start for success

Posted: August 14, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 14, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Ethan Kamins takes a tour of the multipurpose room with his class on his first day at Castaic Elementary School on Monday.

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Wide, toothy grins and summer stories exchanged, students became fast friends within moments Monday as the 2012-13 school year dawned at Castaic Elementary School.

There was no doubt about it, Castaic Union School District was back in session.

“Hectic, hectic,” said school health clerk Renee Ayers shortly after 8 a.m., describing the constant stream of milling children in front of the attendance office.

“And the parents are usually more anxious than the kids,” Ayers said. “I think we have more crying parents than children.”

The parent-youngster separation anxiety started a little sooner for some moms and dads this year — as it will for the next three years due to the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which created transitional kindergarten.

Transitional kindergarten is the newest item on the educational agenda, an offering prompted by a 2010 state law, according to Principal Denise Davis.

The idea is to engage children at a younger age and prepare them for academics when ready while still offering an environment for them to learn socialization, Davis said.

It’s also meant to address a “learning gap” that English-language learners and children of low means frequently endure, according to Phil Lafontaine, director of professional learning support division with the California Department of Education.

A child from a well-heeled family may be afforded the option of “taking their child on a trip to the zoo or reading to them at home, which parents of low means may not always be able to afford to do,” Lafontaine said.

Transitional kindergarten offers the option of one-on-one teaching opportunities in a classroom environment that has academic implications, he said.

Another advantage of the early kindergarten program, dubbed “TK” for short, is that it provides an educational care option for children who may otherwise be held back or have to start kindergarten before they are ready, Davis said.

The two-year program is funded by the state from classroom attendance like everything else, according to Nancy Copley, assistant superintendent for instructional services for Newhall.

There is no additional cost to the state for the first 12 years because TK is only a marginal adjustment of enrollment eligibility, Lafontaine said.

When these students reach 12th grade, the system will begin to bear the costs of the extra month of instruction, Lafontaine said.

State officials said it would be hard to estimate what that cost might be because only about 45,000 students are eligible statewide and funding costs vary by region. In the SCV, K-8 schools are given approximately $4,300 per student in state revenue.

The law was inspired by a 2008 Public Policy Institute of California report that reviewed 14 recent rigorous studies regarding the effects of entrance age on student outcomes in the short and long term, according to a statement by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who co-sponsored the bill.

A district is only required to offer the program if there is demand from parents, Lafontaine said.

Saugus Union offers one course each at Cedarcreek, James Foster and Tesoro del Valle elementaries. The Newhall School District will have one offering at Oak Hills and Newhall elementaries.

The Sulphur Springs district is offering TK at Mitchell Community School, Leona Cox and Valley View elementaries.

Castaic Elementary’s 13-child transitional kindergarten class is the only one of its kind in that district. But both parents and the teacher have been enthusiastic, Davis said.

Christine Gonzales hustles from Northlake, where she drops off her 7-year-old daughter, to Castaic Elementary so her 4-year-old can start TK.

“I’ve heard the teacher is amazing,” Gonzales said.

The class’ teacher, Ernestina Aguilar, is a former Castaic Elementary School student.

The Valencia High School and COC grad also was an English-language learner who transferred jobs from Live Oak to Castaic to be the program’s first teacher.

“I wanted to be part of this transformation,” Aguilar said, who said she was held back in kindergarten due to struggles she associated with a language barrier.

“I think this is the missing piece for some of those students who might not be as successful,” she said. “I really believe that giving them this extra time and learning through play and exploration that they really will benefit.”

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