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Transitional Kindergarten Could Be a Great Equalizer. In Its Current Form, it Drives Inequality.

Photo: marragem / Flickr

My husband and I did not procreate at the right time.

Now, my kid will start kindergarten with an extreme disadvantage compared with his peers whose birthdays qualify them for a free extra year of school through transitional kindergarten.

With the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, the state introduced transitional kindergarten, or TK, and changed the Dec. 2 cutoff date for kindergarten, requiring eligible kids to turn 5 by Sept. 1. Parents whose 4-year-olds with fall birthdays no longer qualified for kindergarten were offered TK as a consolation prize.

Many education advocates saw the program as a first step toward eventually establishing a more equitable, publicly funded program for all 4-year-olds, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the program only serves students who happen to turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

Those lucky kids effectively get an extra year of public school at no cost, and start kindergarten with a huge, unfair advantage.

The program is brazen age discrimination and provides inequitable opportunities.

My oldest kid is a good head taller than most of the kids in his North Park preschool, and he’s emotionally mature. He whines sometimes when I tell him it’s a preschool day because he dreads naptime – he’s been over the napping thing for almost a year now. He’s also obsessed with numbers. He’ll often ask us to help him solve math problems while we’re driving in the car. Recently, he’s also taken an interest in letters and reading. The other day, he asked me what O-P-E-N spells, and now it’s among the dozens of words he’s sight-reading.

In short, my son is ready for transitional kindergarten this year. His preschool teacher has told me this many times. But because my son was born on Dec. 26, he misses the transitional kindergarten cutoff by just 24 days. Now those two-dozen days stand between my son and a beneficial early start to the public school system. It boggles my mind that if my husband and I had sex just a few weeks earlier, my son would right now be learning to read with his friends in a transitional kindergarten classroom. We also wouldn’t be stuck paying $10,000 for another year of preschool.

Studies show that transitional kindergarten students are better prepared for school than other kids, yet only those born in that three-month period get to take advantage of it. Under the current system, the kids who qualify for TK are already at an advantage, since they’ll also be the oldest kids in their kindergarten classes. Giving these kids an extra year of school to prepare for kindergarten doesn’t make sense.

I’m not a helicopter mom; I’m more of a bulldozer. So, over the last two years, I’ve worked hard to get my son into TK despite those pesky 24 days standing in our way.

I was thrilled, for just a moment, when I learned that schools can allow kids whose birthdays fall after Dec. 2 into TK. Schools that let younger 4-year-olds in start getting the funding that follows around each student as soon as he or she turns 5. I’ve watched closely and jumped on every opportunity I’ve found where I see schools advertising open TK seats. So far, none has been willing to let my son in.

My home school district of Lemon Grove doesn’t have many TK programs, but representatives told me they weren’t willing to budge. A few charter schools were more open to the idea, but ultimately passed on letting my son in. A spokeswoman from the San Diego Unified School District’s enrollment office told me there’s a strict policy against letting kids into TK early.

San Diego Unified is already experimenting with expanded TK in its Henry Cluster, the group of schools that feed into Patrick Henry High School in San Carlos. Elementary schools there offer TK to children who live in the neighborhood and turn 5 between Dec. 3 and March 2. Other nearby school districts like La Mesa and El Cajon offer early admission kindergarten programs, and students who miss the TK cutoff can start a TK-like program in January.

Kindergarten can be a slap in the face for kids who aren’t prepared or ready. I’ve watched my friends who did happen to get pregnant at the right time as they’ve sent their kids to TK. For some, it’s been the miracle that got their kids ready for big-kid school. For others, it’s been too much, too soon. Yet so many parents just can’t afford to leave the offer of free education on the table, so they put their kids in TK whether they’re ready or not.

I’m not pushing to kill the transitional kindergarten program. Expand it. The districts that are letting more 4-year-olds into the program understand the benefits of early childhood education are so great, it’s worth the investment. Plus, the districts get money when those kids turn 5. They’re only floating 4-year-old kids for a few months before the funding kicks in.

Expanding these types of TK programs to other schools should be a priority for all local school districts.

I’m not the only person with an extreme distaste for TK. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the program. Politicians will continue to threaten to kill it so long as it stands in its current state of serving just one-fourth of 4-year-olds every year.

I’m surprised nobody has sued.

All 4-year-olds who are ready should be allowed to take advantage of transitional kindergarten.

This article originally appeared in the Voice of San Diego.

Author:

Kinsee Morlan is the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego.