By Barbara Wood, Special to the Almanac
In June 2012 Phil and Christie Kiekhaefer moved from Redwood City to Menlo Park, downsizing their family of four into a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath rental they owned, because they felt the Las Lomitas School District would provide a superior education for their children.
Their daughter started kindergarten a few months later and is now in first grade. They planned that their son, who will be 4 in November, would attend a private preschool before entering the Las Lomitas district's new transitional kindergarten program next fall.
In 2010, such two-year kindergarten programs were written into the state Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moved the date by which children must turn 5 in order to enter kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1, making the change a month at a time over three school years. Last year, the first year in which the eligibility date was changed, only 4 percent of California districts that had any eligible children did not have a two-year kindergarten, a study by the American Institutes of Research found.
Unfortunately for the Kiekhaefers, the Las Lomitas School District is one of that 4 percent. The family did not realize this earlier, Mr. Kiekhaefer said, because while the district website had a link to information on transitional kindergarten, it led only to an error message.
Mr. Kiekhaefer figures the lack of a program means they will have to pay at least $15,000 to send their son to one more year of preschool, an expense not in the budget they used to help them decide on the move to Menlo Park.
Next year, the Menlo Park City School District may also drop its two-year kindergarten program, which the California Department of Education's website says is mandatory. "Each elementary or unified school district must offer transitional kindergarten and kindergarten classes for all children eligible to attend," the site states on its "frequently asked questions" page.
The school districts' lawyers answer that question differently, however.
"The CDE website seems to conflict with what the law says," said Eugene Whitlock, San Mateo County deputy county counsel and legal adviser for the Las Lomitas district. "The law doesn't say that it's mandatory," he said.
Of course, a judge could, he said, have a different interpretation. "If you go to court or you get sued, you never know what might happen," he said.
Mr. Whitlock said the Legislature should clear up the law. "Because of the confusion and different interpretations, the best thing for the Legislature to do would be to go back and clarify ... if it is mandatory," Mr. Whitlock said.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who was a state senator at the time, was the author of the Kindergarten Readiness Act. He does not agree with Mr. Whitlock.
"The clear intent and expectation is that TK (transitional kindergarten) is required in every K-12 school setting," he said. "That is borne out by the clear direction on the California Department of Education website."
Supervisor Simitian said he does not think the Kindergarten Readiness Act would have passed without the two-year-kindergarten provision, because it would have meant the parents of 125,000 students born before the date California had used for admission for 60 years would have suddenly found that their children had one more year at home.
However, Supervisor Simitian said, he does understand the local districts' incentive to not follow his law. The changed admission date means fewer entering kindergarteners for Las Lomitas for three years while the program phases in. Those class sizes will remain smaller the entire time the children are at the school.
"It is regrettable, but perhaps understandable, that districts dealing with an enrollment crunch would be looking for any way to manage their growing enrollment," he said.
Both the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park districts are facing growing enrollment that is overcrowding schools.
While all the elementary school districts in the Almanac's circulation area also use attorneys from the county counsel's office, and, according to Mr. Whitlock "the office gives the same advice to all our schools," they are each taking the advice differently.
In the Portola Valley School District, which has two schools and 656 students, Superintendent Lisa Gonzales said they have three children in their transitional kindergarten program this year and "a well-trained, credentialed teacher who provides a nurturing environment for our youngest students," who share a classroom with one-year kindergarten students. The district has no plans to drop the program, she said.
In Woodside, the smallest local district, with one school and 451 students, the two-year kindergarten class has 16 students, who have their own classroom. Woodside allows any child to attend the two-year kindergarten who the teachers and parents think would benefit from the two-year program, regardless of birthdate.
In the Menlo Park City School District, with four schools and 2,926 students, there are 30 children in a transitional kindergarten program, which, like Portola Valley, incorporates the two-year kindergarteners into one-year kindergarten classrooms.
Next year, however, when the Kindergarten Readiness Act says children born between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2 would be eligible for two-year kindergarten, the district "does not anticipate enrolling students in a two-year Kindergarten program unless State funding to provide an extra year of Kindergarten for them becomes available, or other circumstances change," the district website says.
Not having a transitional kindergarten could decrease the size of next year's kindergarten classes in the Menlo Park district by 25 percent because children born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, who would have been admitted to a transitional kindergarten under the new law, and to regular kindergarten under the previous cut-off date, will not be allowed to attend their school.
Menlo Park district board president Terry Thygesen said the board will make a final decision on whether or not it will have a two-year kindergarten next year some time before the enrollment period for the 2014-15 kindergarten class opens early in 2014.
In Woodside, where the school currently has three one-year kindergarten classes and one two-year class, Superintendent Beth Polito is a champion of the two-year program. She believes it could save the district money because it will reduce the number of children who repeat a grade as well as those who require expensive special services.
"Hopefully it's (fewer) referrals for early intervention. It's (fewer) referrals for special education services if you can get them right at the beginning for two solid years."
Even if a judge says the program is not a legal requirement, the district would keep it, she said, "if I had anything to do with it." Why? "Because it's the right thing to do for kids."
Supervisor Simitian said that parents in the districts not offering the two-year kindergarten have limited options. "They can either persuade their board to provide the program that every other district in the state is providing," he said, "or they can litigate, or they can ask the state Legislature to reconfirm the fact that (transitional kindergarten) is a requirement."
Mr. Kiekhaefer said he's tried to get the Las Lomitas board to revisit the issue. He asked Las Lomitas board president Richard Ginn to put a discussion about transitional kindergarten on the board agenda, but, he said, Mr. Ginn told him he would not.
Mr. Ginn said that because he has been advised the program is not mandatory, he sees no reason for the board to discuss it. The program, he said, is unfair because it gives 25 percent of students, those who under the new cut-off date would be the oldest in their classes, an extra year of public school. "That doesn't seem like something I want to do in my district take one-fourth of the kids and give them an extra year," he said.