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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Groton nurtures younger learners with transitional kindergarten program

    Transitional kindergarten teacher Meg Walker shows students, from left, Cassius Prescott, Soleil Poole and Caleb Animas, how to close a glue stick in her classroom at Thames River Magnet School in Groton on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Substitute teacher Kimber Nunez, center, works with students, from left, Ariel Walker, Desmond Ciruzzi and Phoenix Hurt, all 5, in a transitional kindergarten class at Thames River Magnet School in Groton on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Raine Poole, left, and Cassius Prescott, both 5, share a toy in transitional kindergarten class at Thames River Magnet School in Groton on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Oliver Knight, left, and Sofia McDade, both 5, play in the kitchen in transitional kindergarten class at Thames River Magnet School in Groton on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Soleil Poole, 5, cuts out a heart in Meg Walker’s Transitional Kindergarten classroom at Thames River Magnet School in Groton Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Thames River Principal Jamie Giordano, from right, laughs as she watches students Danaliz Mora and Caleb Amimas, both 5, color hearts in Meg Walker’s Transitional Kindergarten classroom at Thames River Magnet School in Groton Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Ariel Walker, 5, dances with a piece of artwork she did in Meg Walker’s Transitional Kindergarten classroom at Thames River Magnet School in Groton Thursday, February 15, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Groton ― Kids in a transitional kindergarten class at Thames River Magnet School on a recent afternoon made pizza and salad at a play kitchen, drew and cut out hearts from construction paper, and built towers for a marble game.

    Teacher Meg Walker said that while to the students, it’s just playing ― there is a lot of learning happening in the classroom.

    The young learners in the transitional kindergarten class, also known as “TK,” turned 5 between early September and Dec. 31. In this program, they are honing fine motor skills and gaining interpersonal skills, Walker said.

    Nadine Macklin, a supervisor of pupil personnel services and early childhood for Groton Public Schools, said transitional kindergarten, modeled after a California program, serves as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten.

    With new legislation that raises the kindergarten age, slated to go into effect next school year, the Groton school district hopes to expand its transitional kindergarten.

    Groton is the only public school district in Connecticut that currently has a transitional kindergarten program, according to Macklin.

    Walker said she has shared the merits of the program with the state and hopes it can be a model for other school districts.

    Transitional kindergarten

    Currently, children in Connecticut have to be 5 years old on or before Jan. 1, 2024, to go to kindergarten. But with new legislation to raise the kindergarten age starting in the 2024-25 school year, children will have to be 5 on or before Sept. 1 to go to kindergarten, unless they receive a waiver from the school district, according to state guidance.

    Macklin said Groton educators support raising the kindergarten age. The expectations and rigor of the kindergarten curriculum has significantly risen over the years, which can be challenging for a child entering kindergarten at age 4. She added that Connecticut is one of the last states to raise the kindergarten age.

    Transitional kindergarten, a full-day program in Groton, has a primarily play-based approach to teaching children skills, such as self-regulation, pre-literacy, pre-math and social skills, which are a major focus of early education programs, Macklin said.

    Groton currently has one transitional kindergarten class, housed at Thames River, that is limited to 18 to 20 students who are not yet 5 at the start of the school year, said Groton Superintendent of Schools Susan Austin.

    Austin said the plan to expand transitional kindergarten ― potentially with a class at each elementary school, based on enrollment ― is cost neutral because fewer students may go to kindergarten next year due to the legislation.

    She said children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 31 will be eligible for transitional kindergarten, which provides a developmentally appropriate program for young learners.

    Groton has approximately 300 students who turn 5 in 2024 either enrolling in or rising to kindergarten or transition kindergarten next school year, according to the school. Of those 300 students, 70 turn 5 after the new cutoff date for kindergarten eligibility, said Rebecca Kuchar Beyus, communications specialist for Groton Public Schools.

    Thames River Principal Jamie Giordano said transitional kindergarten meets the needs for the younger age group, because there are kids in kindergarten turning 6, while the younger students are turning 5, and that’s a huge gap. Some of the younger students may have their academic skills ready to go but their social, behavioral and emotional skills are still developing.

    Walker said that with the small age range in transitional kindergarten, she is able to really focus on what the children need for their development as a teacher. Their schedule includes time for physical education, math, literacy, phonics, story time and play time.

    Transitional kindergarten students move on to kindergarten the next year, though rarely the students will go to first grade the next year, she said.

    “My kids go into kindergarten the following year confident and looking like the top students they are,” said Walker, who developed the transitional kindergarten program with a team several years ago. This means students likely won’t need remedial reading or math support or a lot of social-emotional support from a social worker.

    Austin said that under the new waiver process in the legislation, which also includes a kindergarten screening, parents may request a kindergarten placement if the child does not meet the age requirement. Groton Public Schools is offering alternative early childhood programs, such as transitional kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, and preschool with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), to provide alternatives for students and families affected by the new legislation.

    “With the recent legislation around the kindergarten age change, Groton is in a good position to support our students who are no longer eligible through our transition kindergarten program,” Austin said. “We established the TK program and screening process about five years ago. However, that was after a year or two of planning. We understand the concerns of districts that need more time and resources to respond to the legislation.”

    Preparing students

    Courtney Richards said her son, Spencer, went to transitional kindergarten at Thames River last year. As a younger student with an early September birthday, he wasn’t quite ready for kindergarten. The transitional kindergarten program was similar to kindergarten, but more hands-on and play-based.

    “He loved that they were able to play more and learn in a different way,” Richards said.

    In transitional kindergarten, educators caught a speech issue and helped him get the help he needed so now he’s doing really well in kindergarten, Richards said. Her son, who didn’t go to preschool or prekindergarten, developed socially and emotionally in transitional kindergarten and learned how to interact with other kids and handle situations properly.

    She said especially with the new legislation, transitional kindergarten is a great opportunity for kids who can’t go to kindergarten yet.

    “It prepares them in a way that I couldn’t have even imagined,” Richards said. “It was really a blessing to be able to have him in that class.”

    Robin Shaw said her son, Owen Finnigan, went to transitional kindergarten when he was 4 years and 8 months old and then went on to kindergarten. He is now in first grade and doing fourth-grade math.

    “He definitely has more confidence now in himself having that extra year,” she said, which provided exposure to similar curriculum that he learned in kindergarten.

    New London also planning for TK

    New London is planning to implement transitional kindergarten classes next school year as an option for students who are not yet 5 years old by Sept. 1, said New London Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Ritchie. The new classes would be in addition to the district’s preschool classes.

    “One Transitional Kindergarten program is being planned for each of our elementary schools and full and part-day programming will be offered in each,” Ritchie wrote in a memo about early childhood opportunities. Families are signing up for programs, and family collaboration meetings and screening events will be held in April, May and June.

    Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said the district does not plan to make any significant program adjustments at this time, as it has full-day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs, and relatively few students who are directly impacted. The district has a waiver process in place and will continue to monitor the student count over the next several months.

    Montville Public Schools Superintendent Laurie Pallin said the school district doesn’t plan to create a program for students who turn 5 between September through December, but is keeping an eye on the legislation.

    “It is my understanding that this legislation may come up for review in the current legislative session,” Pallin said. “At this time, we have put a process in place aligned with the current statute and will make adjustments as necessary.”

    Legislators discuss delaying change

    Some legislators are advocating to delay raising the kindergarten age, according to a legislator’s website.

    “The four month difference has left the caregivers of 9,000 children scrambling to figure out if they can get their kids into kindergarten or if they’ll need one more year of preschool, which comes with a significant price tag,” state Rep. Mary Welander, D-Orange, who serves on the Education Committee, said in a statement on her website.

    State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, who also serves on the committee, said the legislation seems to have been passed without taking into consideration all the factors, particularly that parents of younger children, who would have been going to kindergarten and can get a kindergarten waiver, if they qualify, now have to find potential alternatives for their children. He said that if the legislation needs to be delayed for practical reasons, he supports taking the time to work out the issues.

    State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, co-chair of the Education Committee, said in a statement that legislators are working on the issue, but many school districts have shared great examples of what they’re doing to get ready for next year.

    Currey said the Middletown Board of Education voted unanimously to add kindergarten readiness classrooms this fall “for ’ber babies’ ” born in September, October, November and December to support the children and their families, without putting a heavy burden on the school budget.

    Education Committee Co-Chair, state Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said in a statement that “Connecticut has adopted a sound policy that aligns us with the vast majority of states.”

    “However, the consternation of parents impacted by this change has not fallen on deaf ears and we’re having conversations about the best way to address those concerns,” McCrory said.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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