Original URL:  http://www.bayarea.com/mld/cctimes/living/education/6887791.htm

Kindergarten requirements concern parents
Sep. 29, 2003

By Joelle Tessler

SAN JOSE - To Joanne Specht's kindergartners, picking through the piles of shiny beads and buttons, seashells and "creepy crawly creatures" one recent morning was a game of exploration. For Specht, the exercise laid the groundwork for teaching the kids how to sort objects by color, shape and size, and then begin counting.

And these kids had better learn how to count. By the end of the year, they'll be expected to start doing simple math.

Six years into California's drive for tougher academic standards in its public schools, kindergarten has moved beyond just ABC's and 123's. Instead of building blocks and fingerpaints, the emphasis today is on learning to read and write, add and subtract.

"I feel like I'm teaching first grade," said Specht, a kindergarten teacher at Christopher School in San Jose.

Not surprisingly, as the reforms have filtered into classrooms in recent years, they have sparked much debate.

On one side, state lawmakers and policy makers insist that kindergartners are coming away with the solid foundation they need to succeed in school as they get older.

Yet many parents and teachers worry that the push to introduce academics in kindergarten is putting too much pressure on young children.

Evolving requirements

The one thing they all agree on: Kindergarten is a very different place than it was a generation ago.

Joan Howard remembers the days when kindergarten revolved around hula hoops and Play-Doh, nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

"It used to be a lot of exploratory activities," said Howard, who retired in June after 24 years of teaching kindergarten and first grade in the Oak Grove district in San Jose. "And we had more time for P.E., for running and sliding and swinging. But now we've had to let a lot of that go. Now kindergarten gets more academic every year."

Schantal Posada's class at River Glen, a Spanish-language immersion magnet school in San Jose, offers a picture of kindergarten today. Although Posada speaks to her students only in Spanish, her class sticks to the same curriculum standards as English-only kindergartens across California.

One recent morning, she had her students tallying the number of days they've been in school so far, picking vowels out of sentences, identifying the letters in their names and following along in their own books as she read from "Bono el Mono en la Escuela," the tale of a monkey who goes to school and learns to raise his hand and share his toys.

One of Posada's students, Julia Hamilton, said her favorite part of kindergarten is "sticker time," which comes at the end of the day when her teacher hands out stickers to the well-behaved kids. Julia, who is 5, also likes marking off the dates on the wall calendar and translating her teacher's Spanish into English for her classmates.

Challenges sought

Although the girl is still learning how to read, she is able to recite the tale of "El Puerco Raro" from what Posada calls a "pattern book." The book, about a pig who is blue and yellow and red, repeats the same sentence pattern over and over -- changing only one word (the color of the pig) on each page.

At this early point in the year, Posada explained, Julia is reciting the tale largely from memory. But she is starting to match the words she says aloud with the words on the page. And Posada is confident that Julia -- along with the rest of the class -- will be reading and writing simple sentences by June.

Kerry Mazzoni, California's secretary of education, believes academics need to begin in kindergarten if children are to become proficient readers by the end of third grade, which is critical to making the transition from "learning to read, to reading to learn."

Rosemarie Cortez, an early literacy specialist at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, noted that children not reading at grade level by the end of first grade are usually not on track to meet this target. "It's very hard for these kids to catch up," she said.

Many parents, too, want to see their children challenged in kindergarten. Debbie Tegan, a mother of three in San Jose, was pleased with the tougher curriculum in her son's kindergarten class at Taylor School last year because the boy already was reading after two years of preschool. "I wanted to make sure he would progress," Tegan said.

What concerns many teachers is that not all kindergartners have matured enough mentally or physically to begin academics. Many cannot even hold a pencil or a scissors properly, much less write their names, when they start school.


"You can't rush development," said Paula Eilers, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Sedgwick School in Cupertino. "It will happen when it happens."

Compounding the problem, California is one of just a handful of states that allow children as young as 4 into kindergarten because any child who turns 5 by Dec. 2 can enroll in the fall. Many of the younger ones lag behind, teachers say, because they are still so young.

"Those are the ones who chitter chatter all the time and can't sit still on the carpet," Specht said. "They wiggle a lot and they talk about things that don't apply to the lesson because they can't focus."

Kim Atkinson, a mother of three in Mountain View, agrees that the state curriculum expects too much of some young children. Atkinson was a volunteer last year in her daughter's kindergarten class at Slater School. Although her daughter was one of the older kids in the class and was ready for the kindergarten program, Atkinson saw some of the younger ones struggle. Now she is keeping her 4-year-old son, who turns 5 in November, in preschool for another year.

"We shouldn't push kids before they're ready," Atkinson said. "There are windows of learning where their brains are able to handle certain information."

It is not just the younger kids who are at a disadvantage. With its sizable immigrant population, California also has many children who start school behind because they do not speak English.

At the same time, many low-income children come to kindergarten having never been to preschool. But today, some of the basics once taught in kindergarten -- how to line up, how to sit at a desk, how to recite the alphabet -- are left to preschool. So these kids, too, start out behind.

Preschool as a solution

In the current budget crisis, however, there is little funding for universal preschool. Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who is sponsoring a bill that would phase in voluntary preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in California over a 10-year period, estimates that universal preschool would cost the state upward of $2 billion a year.

Complicating all of this is the reality of half-day kindergarten. Because many kindergarten classes in California last just three and a half hours, the focus on academics leaves little time for art, music, games or even playtime. Yet kindergarten teachers insist that these parts of the curriculum -- particularly playtime -- are critical for social and academic development.

Both Specht and Posada feel fortunate that they teach in kindergartens with longer days. Specht is able to set aside the last 20 minutes of class each day for "choosing time" -- allowing her students to pick from among the Lincoln Logs, Fisher-Price villages and plastic dinosaurs and trucks. It is a chance for the kids to develop vocabulary, use their imaginations and learn to play well with others.

But not all kindergarten classes have time for such luxuries. And that leaves some wondering whether California has forgotten that kindergartners are, well, just kids.

"It seems like we are trying so hard to get kids ready for college that we overshoot the mark," said Atkinson, the mother in Mountain View. "They don't have time to be kids anymore. It's like they have to get all their playing done by age 5."