Apodaca: New cut-off dates complicate kindergarten

Kindergarten hasn't always been complicated.

I still remember my first day, when Miss Floor told us that we were going to learn to read, and pointed to "the Big Red Book" at the far end of the classroom.

I was excited, but I had misheard my soft-spoken teacher, and spent the next day wondering how a "big red hook" was going to help me read. I soon figured it out, and took to reading like a dog to a bone.

In those days, few of my classmates had attended pre-school — or "nursery school," as it was often called then — and anyone who met the minimum age requirement was sent to kindergarten without question.

These days, kindergarten has gone all strategic and controversial. We fret over children's "readiness" for kindergarten, analyze the academic pace for 5-year-olds, and worry that a subpar experience in the first year of formal education will doom kids to "falling behind."

Now we're about to add to the confusion. Starting this September, a new state law will take effect that changes the minimum age for kindergarten.

California law has long held that children must turn 5 years old by Dec. 2 of a given school year to be eligible for kindergarten enrollment. Under the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, that date will be pushed back to Nov. 1 in the 2012-13 school year, Oct. 1 the following year, and will settle at Sept. 1 starting in 2014.

The change conforms to starting dates in many other states, as well as earlier cutoffs at most private schools.

A great deal of uncertainty revolves around the change. Under the new law, districts must institute a "transitional kindergarten," part of a two-year kindergarten program for kids who would have qualified for enrollment under the old cutoff date.

However, the law doesn't specify what transitional kindergarten should look like, and leaves it up to each district to figure it out.

Moreover, funding for the new program remains highly doubtful.

It will cost an estimated $243 million to implement transitional kindergarten in the next school year — money that the near-bankrupt state doesn't have. Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget for the next fiscal year would eliminate all funding for transitional kindergarten, and he has called for such programs to be optional.

In Newport-Mesa, about 100 children who will turn 5 this November could be affected. According to Deputy Supt. Paul Reed, the district for now plans to offer the two-year kindergarten option for those kids, but they'll likely be merged with the regular kindergarten students.

Given that the status of transitional kindergarten remains unresolved, "we're advising the parents of November kids that they'll be notified as soon as we know the outcome," Reed said.

For many Newport-Mesa parents, the implementation of the new law will probably barely register.

Many parents — particularly those in affluent places like Newport Beach — have for many years without hesitation delayed kindergarten for children with fall birthdays, and sometimes for those with summer and even spring birthdays.

It's taken as common wisdom that "holding back," as we call it, benefits kids because they'll be more physically, emotionally and cognitively developed, and thus better positioned to succeed in school.

Whether or not that's actually true is a matter of debate, and research can be found supporting both sides.

In a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, Julie Flapan, a researcher and director of civic engagement for UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, offered an insightful examination of "holding back," and her own decision to send her son with a summer birthday to kindergarten this fall ("How to succeed in kindergarten," April 15).

I called Flapan to discuss her thoughts, including her musings that the inclination to hold children back might be motivated less by legitimate concerns than by attempts to "social engineer" kids to the top of the pecking order.

Those plans don't always pan out, she said. There's ample evidence to suggest that children benefit from challenges and high expectations; research indicates that any academic advantage older children might have levels off at about third grade. The younger kids tend to "rise to the occasion," Flapan said.

She also worries that the trend toward delaying kindergarten puts added pressure on parents to foot the bill for expensive preschools. The new law might simply "move the goal posts," encouraging parents with means to start their kids in school even later, an option likely to prove difficult for families that are struggling financially.

But concerns about social justice and the greater good tend to go out the window when parents are faced with deciding what's best for their own kids.

"No one wants their child to be the youngest," she said.

Flapan's comments resonated greatly with me. My older son has a fall birthday, and was always one of the youngest students in his grade.

For years, I agonized over our decision to send him to school so young. He excelled academically, and was tall for his age, but I worried constantly over his social and emotional well-being. Even now, as he is about to graduate from UCLA, I wonder if I'd make the same choice again.

I don't envy parents of young children today. Kindergarten wasn't always so complex. But it's about to get trickier still.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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