At Gulf Avenue Elementary in Wilmington, 4-year-olds in a transitional kindergarten class start the day singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" before sitting down to trace the letter A and learn its sound. Nearby, students in the school's regular kindergarten class are also hard at work, reading and writing sentences.
The two sets of students are separated in age by only a few months, but the gulf in maturity and academic skills is wide.
Teacher Carmina Gonzalez, who helps some of the 4-year-olds with their letters while tending to a little girl who is crying distractedly, says she saw the contrasts every day in the kindergarten classes she taught.
"The younger ones are all about exploration: They want to walk around, I couldn't get them to sit," she said. "Sometimes they do well, but as the grades get more difficult and the curriculum gets more difficult, that's when we see them fall behind."
Those disparities are one reason many educators are supporting legislation that, if signed by the governor, would require that California children entering kindergarten turn 5 by Sept. 1 rather than Dec. 2.
The bill, SB-1381, which was approved by the Legislature last week, would also provide a year of transitional kindergarten for children with fall birthdays, essentially creating another grade level for an estimated 120,000 4-year-olds.
California is one of only a few states with a kindergarten cutoff date later than Sept. 1, and many educators believe that puts younger children at a disadvantage when entering today's academically demanding kindergarten classes.
Transitional kindergarten would provide two years of preparation for the first grade, which supporters say would boost test scores and reduce special education placements and the number of students held back a grade.
"Today's kindergarten is not what most of us think of when we remember our own experience decades ago," said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D- Palo Alto), who wrote the legislation. "It's a pretty rigorous place these days, and the youngest are struggling to keep up. One thing that caught my attention was a kindergarten report card that had a space for algebra skills, and I thought, 'OK, this is a lot more challenging.' Too many kids are just not ready."
In fact, in a practice some call kindergarten red-shirting, parents frequently hold their child back a year to allow them to mature and give them an academic advantage.
Typically, they are parents with the means to pay for an additional year of childcare or to send children to private preschool programs. Some critics question the long-term benefits of holding a child back, but the proposed changes in California would help level the playing field for low-income children and English learners, proponents say.
The California legislative analyst's office estimated that changing the cutoff date could save the state $700 million annually by having 100,000 fewer kindergartners in school. The savings would be used by districts to establish transitional programs, so the legislation is considered cost neutral.
The age change would be phased in by moving the cutoff date a month earlier for three years beginning in 2012. Children born after Sept. 1 could still start kindergarten if their parents applied for early admission and the school district agreed it would be in the child's best interest.
Transitional kindergarten programs would be staffed by credentialed teachers and adhere to basic kindergarten standards, but with a curriculum that emphasizes fine motor skills, hands-on activities, learning to write names and basic counting.
The change would help young children who might otherwise find themselves competing academically with classmates six months to a year older, said Debra Weller, president of the California Kindergarten Assn., which began calling for a later start to kindergarten more than two decades ago.
Over time, expectations for kindergartners have increased dramatically. They now are expected to be able to write three sentences with punctuation, read simple sentences and at least 50 words on sight, do simple addition and subtraction, and understand concepts of social studies and science.
But many 4-year-olds would still rather roll around on the rug and scribble, said Weller, a teacher at Bathgate Elementary in Mission Viejo.
"There's nothing wrong with their intelligence, they are perfect little 4-year-olds doing what 4-year-olds should do; but they start to realize they're not equal to their peers, so their self-esteem can start to be affected," said Weller, who has taught kindergarten for 18 years. "In many cases, they are the children who wind up in intervention classes and wind up being retained and costing a lot of extra time and resources."
Weller's observations are borne out by a 2008 report by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California, which reviewed 14 studies that examined the effects of entry age on student outcomes. Several of the studies suggested that older students are less likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability and more likely to attend college.
For Emma Payares, the transitional program at Gulf Avenue made sense for her 5-year-old son. The boy, whose birthday fell after last year's kindergarten deadline, can be shy in social situations and his attention sometimes wanders, she said.
"Some children, especially boys, need that extra help so that they are not crammed with academics so quickly," said Payares, 53, a community instructor for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "They need time to develop socially, so it's definitely the ideal situation for him."
The legislation is supported by business, education, civic and child advocacy organizations.
The California Teachers Assn. has adopted a neutral position, after opposing a previous version of the bill that did not provide for transitional programs. A spokesman said the group would have liked more flexibility for local school districts and parents to determine what's best for individual children.
L.A. Unified launched a voluntary pilot transitional program this fall that will enroll about 900 students at 38 schools, including Gulf Avenue, said Whitcomb Hayslip, assistant superintendent for early childhood education.
The added year will be a special help to the school district's many dual language learners, he said. "These children come to school with many challenges but also a great opportunity, and that foundation year can give them the boost that they need," Hayslip said.
At Gulf Avenue, about 20 students attend the transitional class and most parents were enthusiastic, said Principal Nora Armenta.
"In affluent areas, the 'preppy K' programs have been around for a while because parents saw the need for their children, but not so much in working-class areas," Armenta said. "It's great that more children are going to have the same opportunity."