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Learning Matters: Early-childhood education options help students, parents

As Tony Thurmond, the newly elected state superintendent, and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom prepare to take office, it’s a good time to review early-childhood education opportunities in California.

In their campaigns, both Thurmond and Newsom expressed a desire to expand access to preschool, but so far I haven’t found many details about their plans.

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I’ve seen references to both “universal preschool,” which many would define as state-funded preschool for every child, and to a more limited, needs-based expansion of public preschool options.

In his recent L.A. Times column (“Legislative blue wave could engulf GOP,” Dec. 3), George Skelton opined that “Newsom will target early-childhood education, focusing on what he calls ‘the readiness gap’ — kids not being adequately prepared to start school.”

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Skelton went on to quote Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon as claiming he’s “definitely on the same page [with Newsom … to] … get the kids early and break the cycle of poverty.”

But whether preschool expansion is targeted to disadvantaged students or to all children, getting “on the same page” for early-childhood education will require a shared understanding of the variety of existing programs.

For some local expertise — and recommendations for the state superintendent and governor — I visited with Marilyn Hande, a longtime Glendale Unified teacher who has served at state and county levels to develop California’s transitional kindergarten, or TK, program.

Hande has taught a TK class at Columbus Elementary since the TK program started seven years ago.

As a historical note, the California legislature initiated transitional kindergarten as part of a long-sought change in the age requirement for kindergarten. Before 2011, children had to turn 5 years old by Dec. 2 of the school year to start kindergarten.

As kindergarten became more academic and elementary test scores more important, and as school years began starting in August or earlier (it was July in the era of year-round education), educators saw the challenges for 4-year-olds entering kindergarten.

After years of discussion, the legislature approved transitional kindergarten as a compromise that, over the course of three years, allowed children who turned 5 during the months of September, October and November to enroll in a “transitional” extra year of school before enrolling in kindergarten the following year.

The bill kept many parents happy and also prevented teacher layoffs in the transitional years. To this day, many of California’s fall-born children get an extra year of public education.

Hande, who loves teaching TK, was ready with recommendations and questions about preschool expansion, starting with, “What do they mean by preschool? What ages [are they targeting]?”

She pointed out different programs the district currently offers, including state-subsidized and non-subsidized classes, special-education programs for students as young as 3 and programs at some of the language-immersion schools.

She suggested clarity in definitions and requirements. Many parents and teachers speak of Pre-K, for instance, referring to any programs for 4-year-olds in preparation for the rigors of kindergarten.

But Pre-K does not necessarily mean TK, she pointed out. California’s TK teachers must have teaching credentials in addition to credits in early-childhood education, and TK emphasizes social/emotional development with lots of play.

There’s also the issue of staffing, Hande told me. What staff-to-student ratios would be required? She currently has 26 children in her class — the district’s enrollment cap — with an assistant usually in attendance for part of the children’s 4.5-hour day. But other publicly-funded programs have different ratios.

She mentioned Head Start, a federally-funded, needs-based program in existence since 1965. Head Start’s governing legislation requires staffing at 5-to-1, she said, so a class of 15 preschoolers has three adults in the room — usually a teacher and two assistants.

The state-sponsored preschool classes require similar ratios, she added.

Head Start also has parent education and participation requirements that Hande would love to see included in any new legislation. What if California linked TK enrollment to parent participation and the chance to see how teachers help their children learn and develop?

Supt. Thurmond might look for inspiration to the long-standing parent education program at Glendale Community College or to parent-cooperative preschools in California. He’d also do well to visit the parent nights Hande offers her students’ families throughout the year.

At least one local Head Start program I’ve heard about is looking for funding to provide financial-literacy training for its parents, so they can improve their financial footing and maybe start saving for college.

Helping parents early could go a long way toward breaking the cycle of poverty.

Joylene Wagner is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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