Kindergarten requirements concern parents
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
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
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
Yet many parents and teachers worry that the push to introduce academics in
kindergarten is putting too much pressure on young children.
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.
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
"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
But not all kindergarten classes have time for such luxuries. And that leaves
some wondering whether California has forgotten that kindergartners are, well,
"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."