The kindergarten prep class at El Morro Elementary School is opening up to more 5-year-olds and enrollment has soared four-fold for next fall.
If a child’s fifth birthday falls on or after Sept. 2, parents can now enroll them in a preparatory kindergarten class, a relatively new state-mandated program intended to improve children’s readiness for school. While a boon to parents, the free program is causing competitive sparks in the private sector of pre-schools that depend on tuition to operate.
The district is required by the state Department of Education to offer “Transitional Kindergarten” as part of what is becoming a two-year kindergarten program for public schools. The prep class provides parents with the option of giving their “young” 5-year-old an extra year to get used to school instead of going straight into kindergarten when parents don’t feel their child is quite ready.
When the program was initially offered three years ago, children not yet 5 by Dec. 2 could enroll in the school district’s transitional kindergarten class; and only one child signed up, said Chris Duddy, principal of El Morro Elementary, where the pre-kindergarten class is held.
The next year, the age requirement was extended by the state to children turning 5 by Nov. 2, and five students enrolled at El Morro, said Duddy.
Now, in its the third year, transitional kindergarten is available to children turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. Duddy said they already have 21 students on the roster for the new school year starting in September.
Younger 5-year-olds entering kindergarten typically have trouble jumping to the more analytical focus of using pencils and paper to practice writing letters and solving math problems rather than blocks, Playdoh and pictures, said Duddy, who calls the pre-K kids preppie Ks.
“Teachers throughout the state always, I don’t want to say complained, but always noted that the kids who were 4-just-turning-5 entering kindergarten were behind in getting their letters, their sounds,” he said. “That’s why we want to make it a two-year program so those students aren’t behind anymore.”
Tami Mays has taught elementary schoolchildren for 10 years and is finishing her first year as the pre-K teacher at El Morro. She also teaches kindergarten.
This year, Mays said, she’s been able to observe younger 5-year-olds in transitional kindergarten. “I can definitely tell a difference comparing those kids to the kids I have in kindergarten in the morning,” she said. “They’re just younger, they just need more time. It completely depends on the child, but fall birthday kids aren’t typically ready for kindergarten.”
By extending the birthday range three months, Duddy said he’s hoping to draw the maximum number of 32 students to fill two transitional kindergarten classes, a morning and an afternoon with an overlap of about an hour and a half.
The districtwide TK classes are creating a competitive stir in the private daycare and preschool sector. “That wasn’t the purpose of it, but it can be a substitute for pre-school,” said Duddy. “For parents, it’s free. That’s a big bonus for parents who might be working or need the money because they can’t afford childcare and preschool.”
Anne Herzog, preschool director at Laguna Presbyterian Church, said she’s adding a new program called Developmental Kindergarten that provides an extra hour to give her students more time than the district can offer.
“As a private pre-school, we’re dependent on enrollment to keep our doors open and the tuition that brings in,” said Herzog. With the district now able to accept more students, Herzog said she’s lost six students to the free TK program at El Morro.
“That extra hour is going to give us that extra time for the kiddos to not only learn by play but also to allow me to work more on social-emotional development along with that kindergarten readiness,” said Kim Neimann, a state-credentialed teacher for early childhood education who has taught preschool at Laguna Presbyterian for 10 years and will teach the developmental kindergarten program.
The program will run five days a week, 10 months a year. It offers four hours a day of class time, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., compared to the district’s three-hour transitional kindergarten program. It also offers a 12-1 maximum student-teacher ratio while the district’s program can go as high as a 32-1 ratio during the overlap time between classes. The price is $700 a month for 10 months.
Neimann says kids are pushed too fast through the school system. Taking the time to get messy when learning about science, social studies and art, she said, builds a foundation students can “bounce off of for years to come.”
“I’ll be able to reach them and teach them more on that social-emotional development part they need, the life skills,” she said. “I’m a very hands-on, fine-motor, gross-motor control teacher, a very multi-sensory type of teacher, so I’m going to be able to understand my class and reach out to each one individually and teach them the way they learn.”
Terry-Anne Barman, early childhood and family services director at the Boys and Girls Club, said the extended birthday range for transitional kindergarten for public schools hasn’t affected her preschool program much, although she’s losing four children to El Morro’s TK program next year.
“We’ll just fill up the spaces next year,” said Barman. The Boys and Girls Club offers a preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds that is free for low-income families and an after-school program that starts at $300 a month. “We’ve always got kids,” she said.
The district budgeted $21,114 for the TK classes. Books, including Handwriting without Tears, building blocks that can be used to create an entire town and other teaching materials will be purchased for $19,964, teacher training for $1,150.