New grade offers line of transition

A teacher leads her transitional kindergarteners back to class after recess at R.O. Hardin Elementary School.

Michelle McCoun’s 32 students look just like the other kindergarten pupils at R.O. Hardin School on a Tuesday morning during the second week of school. Some are dressed in the khaki and navy blue of the school uniforms. They were still getting the hang of picking up their free breakfast from the cafeteria or getting a snack from home out of their back pack. And they all struggled a bit with forming a straight line and following it back into the classroom.

McCoun’s students, however, are all part of a newly created school grade that starts this year. Her students are all “young kinders,” or students who were born between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2, 2008. A state law passed in 2010 created the grade as a way to give the students who are 4 for the first half of the school year a chance to get introduced to state standards while still developing their social skills. According to school officials it is the first new grade created in a hundred years.

The eligibility for the program will roll back for the next three years until the class is open to all 4-year-olds born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

“Last week the first days were minimum days,” McCoun said, as the students sat for a morning snack on the picnic tables outside their classroom. “Friday and yesterday were full days. By 2 p.m., they were tired.”

The 4-year-olds start school at 7:55 a.m. and the school day ends at 2:21 p.m.

“The basis of it is to develop their social and emotional levels as well as their physical levels,” McCoun said, “Fine motor skills and gross motor skills are important to develop so they have the muscle development to start writing.”

During the second week of school, the kids were already learning the letters of the alphabet, with an emphasis on A and B. After a morning snack and recess, the kids sat down for a story time that helped to calm them before they moved on to the next activity. McCoun read “The Alphabet Tree” and “The Mixed Up Alphabet,” asking the kids to say “I Spy” whenever they saw an A or a B in the book. She gently reminded those who got fidgety to sit “criss cross applesauce,” with their legs crossed and their hands in their laps.

McCoun said the biggest difference between a preschool program and the transitional kindergarten is that she ties the activities to the California state kindergarten standards.

“The phonics activities are in line with state-adopted curriculum we already use,” she said. “I’m also going to be doing a lot of math manipulatives and math readiness to get them ready for the rigors of the kinder math program.”

She said the lessons will include reasoning activities and problem solving.

“It’s getting them to think instead of just playing with numbers,” McCoun said.

Karen McLaughlin, the director of educational services, said that before the state law went into effect, kindergarten teachers could have students who were 4, 5 and potentially 6 years old in the classroom.

“The intent is to catch them up,” McLaughlin said of the younger students, noting that kindergarten has always been optional.

The state law was approved in 2010, but local educators said they were not sure if the new grade was going to move forward when state officials threw “a wrench in it.” The grade was mandated, but there was some talk that the state may not provide funding for it or may decide not to require it this year.

“It was really confusing,” said Gary McIntire, the superintendent for Hollister School District.

He said the district had originally considered allowing kids born from Sept. 2 through Dec. 2 to enroll so they could get enough students for more than one class, but instead they decided to stick with the Nov. 2 through Dec. 2 birth dates just in case the state declined to fund the other students.

So far this year, there is only one class of transitional kindergarten for the entire district. The kids are enrolled at the R.O. Hardin campus, but those from other neighborhood schools will return to their home school sites when they move onto the traditional kindergarten class next year. The goal is that as the number of students increase, the district may be able to offer a transitional kindergarten class at each site.

To develop the structure of the program this year, the district put together a voluntary committee that included local kindergarten teachers to talk about requirements for the program. In June, McCoun was hired on as the teacher for the class.

“I’m so thrilled they decided to implement the transitional program,” McCoun said, who has taught kindergarten, first, second and fifth grade. “As a former kindergarten teacher, it was always our biggest concern. Children whose birthdays fell between September and December are usually more emotional and not quite up for the rigors of kindergarten. They are too immature and lack the social skills.”

In addition to the academic standards that will be used in the classroom, McCoun said she will also work with the students to develop their social and emotional skills. A big part of it is building their confidence and self esteem. For instance, the children who get free breakfast from the cafeteria, have their school lunch code written on their name tag so they can type it in before they exit the cafeteria.

“I want to give them the sense they can do it on their own,” she said.

Still, the class does include some of the same elements as preschool. The kids have a quiet period after lunch, where they can read a book or sit quietly on the carpet, with their heads propped on their sweaters. They also had center time, where they could choose to color, play with alphabet magnets, mold clay or more.

“The difference between preschool and this program is it is almost like going back to the old-school kindergarten,” McCoun said, adding that she will be able to follow the curriculum, but with more latitude to create units around different themes or topics. “If we study apples as the overall theme for September, I can incorporate that into science, social studies, math and language arts. It’s harder to do that in the regular grades.”

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