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December 3, 2010 > New law raises age to start kindergarten in Calif.

New law raises age to start kindergarten in Calif.

By Terence Chea, Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP), Oct 01 - California will require kids to be 5 years old when they start kindergarten and create a new grade level for pre-K children after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation aimed at improving student achievement.

The bill approved late Thursday will push back the date by which children must turn 5 to enter kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. The change will be phased in one month at a time over three years starting in fall 2012.

``This is a victory for kids on two fronts,'' said state Sen. Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who authored Senate Bill 1381. ``We start kids when they're ready to succeed in school, and for younger children we provide a 'get ready' year of instruction as well.''

The estimated $700 million saved by delaying kindergarten for roughly 120,000 children annually will be used to pay for ``transitional kindergarten,'' a new grade level for children with fall birthdays who will be too young to start regular kindergarten.

Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the Kindergarten Readiness Act despite opposition from some state lawmakers who worry the new pre-K program could end up increasing costs for taxpayers. Critics say raising the kindergarten age without adding the new grade level would save the state money at a time when California faces severe financial problems.

California currently has one of the latest cutoff dates in the country, which means about one-fourth of students are 4 years old when they start kindergarten.

But studies show the youngest students in a class are most likely to struggle academically, be held back a grade or need special education services. Many teachers complain that their 4-year-old students are not ready for kindergarten, which has become more academically rigorous in recent years.

Raising the kindergarten age could lead to stronger academic performance, higher graduation rates and fewer students needing to repeat grades or take special ed classes, supporters say.

Transitional kindergarten will feature a modified kindergarten curriculum tailored to children born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. Like regular kindergarten, the new program will be optional, but school districts will be required to offer it.

The new grade level was added to the legislation partly out of concern for parents who would otherwise need to pay for another year of childcare or preschool for their children, which could create financial hardship for low-income families.

In recent years, many wealthier families in California have held their children back a year and paid for another year of preschool because they don't believe their kids are ready for kindergarten, but that isn't an option for less well-off families.

``This is a critical reform of elementary school education,'' said Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, an advocacy group that backed the bill. ``Study after study has shown that these younger kindergartners are the ones most likely to experience difficulty in schools. We know that when you give them an additional year of preparation it helps them become confident learners.''

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