The children painted Valentines, formed hearts with Play-Doh and made their own books in a colorful classroom at Long Beach's George Washington Carver Elementary School.
It may have looked like playtime, but the cognitive and academic skills of the 4- and 5-year-olds in her transitional kindergarten class are growing by leaps, said teacher Nancy Jarzomb.
"They're learning the routines of school and building confidence," Jarzomb said as she worked with a small group using a play oven and food made of wood. "Some of them had never held a pencil before, but they're developing a love of school and growing at their own pace."
Transitional kindergarten, a new grade level scheduled to start in most California school districts this fall, is being touted by educators as a means to boost children's future academic achievement and help level the playing field for low-income and disadvantaged students by giving them an extra year of preparation.
But Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed eliminating the program, saying it would save the state about $224 million. Those savings would grow to about $675 million annually by 2014 because there would be fewer 4-year-olds entering kindergarten.
On Tuesday, educators, parents and business and civic leaders gathered at Carver Elementary to condemn the proposal in the first of a series of statewide events being presented by the nonprofit group Preschool California, school superintendents and others.
Opponents say as many as 125,000 children — 40,000 this fall — would be kept from attending public schools, thousands of teaching jobs would be lost, school districts would lose state per-pupil funding and many struggling parents would have to come up with an additional year of child care.
Transitional kindergarten "is the greatest thing we can do to close the achievement gap in California," Long Beach Unified School District Supt. Christopher J. Steinhauser said at the Carver event. "This isn't something we can back off on."
The extra year of kindergarten is part of a law signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requiring that all children entering kindergarten turn 5 by Sept. 1 rather than the current Dec. 2 cutoff date.
The change will be phased in by moving the cutoff date a month earlier for three years, beginning in the fall. Youngsters who don't make the cutoff will be eligible to attend the free transitional program.
Brown's plan to scrap the extra year has put many school districts in a difficult spot: They must prepare months in advance without knowing whether they will receive the state funding since California's budget won't be adopted until July or later.
Long Beach Unified, which operates a pilot transitional kindergarten program at about 20 schools, is committed to fully implementing the classes this fall, Steinhauser said.
San Francisco Unified recently announced that, given the uncertainty, it was canceling the program. Los Angeles Unified, which has a pilot program at 100 schools, will decide by the end of the month how to move forward, said Nora Armenta, director of the district's early-childhood programs.
"At this point, we're planning for a variety of contingencies, from shutting down completely to keeping the 100 classes we already have to opening up more," Armenta said.
State officials sought to allay some concerns in an amended budget released last week, noting that parents can apply for waivers from school districts to enroll children younger than 5 in regular kindergarten. The state will pay districts for those students.
"We believe districts could use the waiver provision to provide some transitional-kindergarten-type program for children where and when appropriate," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance.
The governor's position was supported in a report this week from the state Legislative Analyst's Office, which concluded that it did not make sense to offer an extra year of school at the expense of existing K-12 services.
Proponents of the extra year say it's unfair for the state to take away the rights of thousands of 4-year-olds to attend school, then divert the savings to other uses.
"If we move in this direction, it's the worst kind of bait and switch," said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who authored the Kindergarten Readiness Act. "The bargain we struck two years ago changed the kindergarten starting age but provided transitional kindergarten, and the proposal now is to take advantage of those savings without honoring the commitment to provide this. This is why people don't trust the government."
Iris Sung is one of the thousands of parents in limbo for the fall. The South Pasadena mother had planned to enroll her 4-year-old son, Nickolas, in transitional kindergarten but said she feels like the rug has been pulled out from under her. It would be a hardship to pay for another year of preschool, something she doesn't believe would help her son's academic progress.
"It's a disservice to my child," Sung said, "and a big burden not to be able to put him in transitional kindergarten."