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Transitional kindergarten programs nurture as they grow

Two in Auburn Unified School District almost at capacity
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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Monika Peak went from student to student during circle time at Rock Creek Elementary School on Friday asking each one if they could identify which nut she was holding in her hand.

Some identified pecans, others walnuts and almonds. Earlier in the morning the class had shelled peanuts for peanut butter.

It's all part of the weekly lesson in Peak's transitional kindergarten class. This week, her class is focusing on the letter "N" for "nut."

"We try to incorporate the whole child and address lots of different learning styles by doing a lot of hands-on stuff with a lot of verbal and visual cues, lots of stuff to help them better understand the letter ‘N,'" Peak said.

This is the second year of the transitional kindergarten program at Rock Creek. Even though the program is still in its first few years, Peak said students who have gone through it are already showing signs of academic improvements.

"I am such a believer in this program. Just from having it we have seen some increases in academics in kindergarten because this prepares them so much more on all levels, especially socially and emotionally," Peak said.

Rock Creek Elementary and Skyridge Elementary both offer transitional kindergarten programs. The Bowman Charter School also started offering transitional kindergarten in the Ackerman Elementary School District this year.

Michele Schuetz, superintendent of the Auburn Union School District, said there are 17 students enrolled at Skyridge Elementary for transitional kindergarten and 20 at Rock Creek.

Twenty students per class is about as large as she would like to see.

"We will start a third one when we feel we have the growth. Right now, Rock Creek takes in students from Auburn Elementary, so we have one transitional kindergarten for each side of town," Schuetz said.

Transitional kindergarten offers a "bonus year," as Schuetz explains, to help children adapt to life in the academic atmosphere that is the classroom. The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, or Senate Bill 1381, requires elementary school districts to offer transitional kindergarten starting this year, but Schuetz said Auburn Union has offered a variation of it for three years.

Parents are not required to enter their children into transitional kindergarten under the law.

The law also changes the cutoff date for when a child can enter transitional kindergarten. This year, if a child turns 5 between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2, they can enter transitional kindergarten. Next year that date is bumped up to Oct. 2 and the year after Sept. 2 where it will remain.

That will give more students the opportunity to gain that "bonus year" before kindergarten. During the transitional kindergarten year, students not only pick up on the social and emotional requirements of being in the classroom with other children, they also learn letters, numbers and other basic skills, they're just not required to master them to move on.

At Skyridge Elementary School's transitional kindergarten, Erin Emerson said she reinforces positive behaviors more often than correcting those that are negative. Emerson has been teaching kindergarten and transitional kindergarten for several years and feels that the 4 and 5 year olds respond better when they see their peers praised for appropriate behavior.

The most important aspect of transitional kindergarten is learning through play, however. She indicated a group of children singing the days of the week in a corner of her classroom on Thursday and smiled.

"I love watching them play because they think they're just playing, but they're learning the months and days of the week, and that's what they're choosing to do for their fun activity right now," Emerson said.

Emerson and Peak both agree that children who participate in a year of transitional kindergarten will benefit later when they enter the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms prepared emotionally and ready to learn.

"When you and I went to kindergarten it was very much a social and emotional space. Now before they leave kindergarten they have to be able to count to 100, before it was only 30, they have to know 31 vocabulary words, they need to know all 26 letters and the sounds that they make," Emerson said. "If you leave kindergarten without knowing your letters and sounds, first-grade is going to be really difficult."

Both teachers also agree that transitional kindergarten can be especially helpful for students who come to school as English language learners. In Peak's classroom, 15 of her 20 students are learning English as their second language.

"I'm learning a lot of Spanish," Peak said. "They're all learning language anyway at this age, so I incorporate a lot of song in this program. That's a great way for them to get the language down."

With the transitional kindergarten class at Rock Creek full to capacity and the one at Skyridge close to full, Schuetz said if the program grows much more another transitional kindergarten might have to be added at Auburn Elementary or Alta Vista Charter Academy.

Sam Schug, principal at Auburn Elementary, said he would be open to the idea of having a transitional kindergarten, but that adding a class hasn't been officially considered yet.

"It would be a joint venture between Auburn Elementary and the district, but that would be a great addition if it should come to fruition," Schug said.

Contact Amber Marra at amberm@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.