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Prepping Kindergartners for the Future
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Faced with growing numbers of immigrant children and more state requirements, the Santa Ana (California) Unified School District is considering implementing a two-year kindergarten program to help children catch up academically and socially. Students would receive intensive English-language instruction before moving on to first grade. Included: Explanations on the value of a two-year program.


Alfred Mijares, superintendent of the Santa Ana (California) Unified School District would prefer that students catch up academically sooner rather than later.

Mijares is proposing that Santa Ana offer a two-year, half-day kindergarten program for students who do not have the skills necessary to enter first grade. That could represent as many as 70 percent of students in kindergarten.

"It's up-front, intense education instead of retaining them later," Mijares tells Education World. "It's a practical, reasonable solution they need more academic readiness. It's not about holding them back. If they are ready, they can go on [to first grade.]"

The Santa Ana board of education is scheduled to review the proposal in February.

WORKING ON SKILLS EARLY

Many Santa Ana students come from struggling families. The majority of children entering kindergarten have not attended pre-school, and 76 percent start school unable to speak English. Ninety-one percent of the district's more than 60,000 students are Latino, although the number of students from Southeast Asian countries is starting to increase, according to Mijares. About 85 percent of district families live at the poverty level, and many parents are illiterate, even in their native languages.

"With those demographics, it has been an obvious challenge to ensure students meet state standards and go on to college," Mijares explains. Students in the high school class of 2004 must pass a state exit exam to graduate, and Santa Ana needs to start preparing students now, Mijares adds. "We have too many kids coming to high school three or four years below grade level."

If the two-year program is approved, students could remain with the same teacher for both years. The first-year curriculum would provide intensive English-language instruction, according to Mijares. At the end of the first year, teachers would determine whether students have the necessary English skills to move on to first grade, he says, adding that data shows the majority of students would participate in the second year.

NOT JUST FINGERPAINTING

Teachers also feel pressure to prepare students academically, even at the kindergarten level. "I think the two-year program is a necessity," comments Mario Cuevas, who teaches a structured English-immersion kindergarten class. "We're filling a void. A lot of their parents work really hard. (Students) are lacking a lot of socialization skills; most have never seen a book, been read to, or picked up a pencil. The developmental and physical skills are just not there yet."

Kindergarteners also have their own requirements to meet. They are expected to write simple sentences and must take a writing test by the end of the third trimester, Cuevas says. Teachers are required to teach mathematics, language arts, and social studies and integrate science and art instruction into the other subject areas during the half-day class, he adds.

Although a full-day kindergarten program also would benefit children, space constraints prevent the school system from offering a full-day program in all but a few schools, according to Mijares. Mandating full-day kindergarten district-wide would require about 198 additional classrooms, and there is no room to build them or erect portable classrooms, he says. Instituting a two-year kindergarten program would mean fewer first-grade classes, so that would free-up classrooms.

Administrators also want to eliminate any stigma surrounding a two-year program, by telling people it is the norm, Mijares says. "We want to make sure kids get the extra help they need."

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