According to Hanneman, the mother of an elementary school-aged boy, children make huge strides between ages 4 and 5. During that period in her son's development, Hanneman said, "a huge light turned on." And in the one week she has been teaching the newly introduced transitional kindergarten class at Theuerkauf Elementary, she has seen many of her students making vast improvements in their ability to color inside the lines, recognize their names in print and follow directions.
All 13 of the students in Hanneman's class are 4 years old, and won't turn 5 until November. Over the course of the school year they will experience "a lot of social and emotional growth," which, she said, will prepare them to hit the ground running when they enter normal kindergarten in August 2013.
"I think it's what these kids need," she said.
This is the first year of state-mandated transitional kindergarten in California, and Hanneman's class is one of two in the district (the other is a 16-student class at Castro). The program is intended to make the move from early childhood into school smoother, and comes paired with a shift in the cutoff date for regular kindergarten eligibility.
Previously, children who turned 5 before Dec. 2 could enroll in kindergarten.
Under the Kindergarten Readiness Act, that deadline will eventually be moved up to Sept. 1. The cutoff date will move up incrementally over the course of three years, and the Mountain View Whisman School District plans to unroll its transitional kindergarten program incrementally as well. This year, the program is available only to children with November birthdays; next year, transitional kindergarten classes will accept children who turn 5 between Oct. 2 and Dec. 2; and finally, in 2014-15, transitional kindergarten will accept kids who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.
Transitional kindergarten falls somewhere between preschool and regular kindergarten, according to MVWSD Superintendent Craig Goldman. The curriculum is more basic than a normal kindergarten curriculum, but the day is longer than an average preschool day.
"A lot of people call me a kindergarten teacher," Hanneman said. "Others call me a preschool teacher. I tell them, 'I'm neither. I'm a transitional kindergarten teacher.'"
At the beginning of Hanneman's second week of class, she was reminding her students to push in their chairs when they got up from their desks to play, and had them using crayons to color a cartoon mouse, encouraging them to stay within the lines — skills some have never been asked to perform before.
Transitional kindergarten, Goldman said, looks a lot like what regular kindergarten used to look like. Now, however, the kindergarten curriculum has advanced so much that children who are younger — even by just half a year — are often at a disadvantage, he said. For example, many can't sit still and have trouble following directions.
Hanneman's smaller class size gives her more one-on-one time with each child and allows for more individualized guidance.
But as much as Hanneman is a supporter of the program, Goldman said there are some unresolved political issues that still hang over the program.
For starters, MVWSD runs the program at a loss, which Goldman said is unavoidable if his district is to implement the program the way it was intended to be implemented. Based on the transitional kindergarten funding the district gets from the state versus how much it will cost to run, the superintendent estimates "conservatively" that the program will run an $80,000 deficit this year.
MVWSD could have run its transitional kindergarten program as some other districts are running theirs — in a combination class format, where the younger children share class with the older kindergartners but are technically afforded extra attention from the teacher. "We wanted to do it right."
Additionally, Goldman said, the current transitional kindergarten arrangement — in which the program will be offered only to children born in September, October and November — could ultimately result in children with fall birthdays being given "a leg up" when they reach normal kindergarten.
The program, he said, should offer children "equitable opportunities, regardless of what month they are born."
One solution to this second issue, Goldman said, would be for the state to recognize the need for and fully fund public preschool.
Currently, however, with the state still struggling through the recession and the uncertainty of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiatives on the November ballot, Goldman said the district is simply doing its best to implement the new program, and figure out best practices along the way.
"We're pioneers in this area," he said, adding that many districts throughout the state are in the same boat, working to sort out and develop curriculum as they go. Considering the reality of the situation, he concluded, "Things are going well. The teachers are doing a great job with the children."