Tahoe’s Preppie K program ahead of soon-to-be statewide transitional kindergarten
Sierra House Elementary students in Alison Riegel’s transitional kindergarten class, also known as “Preppie K,” colored in a big “Q” printed on white sheets of paper. They cut out a picture of a queen and pasted it below the colorful letter.
Each student, some who turned 5 more than halfway through the school year, worked at their own pace. Riegel knelt by youngsters who were finished with the project and recited “Q” words.
“I’m awarding table points to table four for working hard and being quiet,” she said to the class in a soft voice. “And what does quiet start with?”
The room erupted with “kwuh, kwuh, kwuh.”
Preppie K is a pre-kindergarten program that allows children who turn 5 late in the year, who would enter their first school year at 4 years old, to get a feeling for the classroom and learning before the expectations of kindergarten are lowered onto their tiny shoulders. According to studies as well as South Tahoe School District superintendent Jim Tarwater, whose own son went through transitional kindergarten, the students come out better prepared for the challenges they’ll face in later school years than if they’d entered kindergarten at a younger age.
“If you look at all the kids we have in the state of California, all 6,000,000, allowing this front-end loading will make a difference in performance,” Tarwater said.
With the passage of the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010, the cutoff birthday date for a child to enter kindergarten moves forward one month a year from Dec. 2 in 2011 to Sept. 1 in 2014. This will qualify an additional 100,000 children for transitional kindergarten. The program will be implemented all over the state, but Tahoe’s Preppie K, now in it’s fifth year, has a lengthy head start.
“I was brand new to the concept of Preppie K,” said Sierra House Elementary principal Ryan Galles, who’s in his third year in the district. “When I came in I was blown away by how effective and amazing it is.”
Galles and Tarwater believe that the Preppie K program prevents students from being retained in later school years. Galles also credits the program with rising test scores among third-graders at Sierra House. According to a 2008 study by the Public Policy Institute titled “Changing the Kindergarten Cutoff Date: Effects on California Students and Schools,” students who are older when they enter kindergarten have better elementary math and reading scores, the subjects most often measured.
Riegel, in her third year as a Preppie K teacher, is continually working to make her class different than kindergarten classes. Nobody seems to know what the statewide transitional kindergarten program will look like, but it is important that schools begin to consider the program now, she said.
“I recommend that the districts start with a Preppie K program now, so that when it becomes mandatory, they will have gotten all the kinks out of it,” Riegel said. “They will be ready and understand what they need to do to differentiate between regular and transitional kindergarten.”
Back in Riegel’s classroom, toys and tools of early learning are scattered over shelves and cubbies. In one area, Riegel has items that the students make patterns with. In one basket are a variety of colored slips of paper in another are cutout cartoons featuring similar characteristics, and in another are pictures of objects that have the same starting or ending sound. Faster learners use the pictures or cartoons to make patterns while slower learners stick to the color patterns, Riegel explained.
“They’re learning all the kindergarten standards at a more individualized rate. ” Riegel said. “I differentiate my lessons and I challenge the kids who have already met the kindergarten standards. It’s kind of like a combo class.”
If Preppie K students show the ability to learn at a kindergarten level, teachers can approve them to move on to first grade. Last year, five of Riegel’s students moved straight to grade one.
At Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School, Denise Upton teaches a combination class of kindergartners and pre-kindergartners. Working with the same curriculum two years in a row doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning the same thing twice, Upton said. Having the Preppie K students among their kindergarten peers actually helps them model their learning, she said.
“Kindergarten is building the foundation for everything,” Upton said. “So Preppy K is an extra layer of the foundation. It doesn’t take away from that kindergarten foundation, but it helps build it a little bit higher.”
Though the program has numerous benefits, it isn’t always easy to convince parents, who have the final say whether or not their children attend, that it’s best for their children, Tarwater said. Di Blitzer, a parent who split her October-born twins between Preppie K and preschool, remembers being skeptical of the program, but after seeing the results she was quick to enroll her younger child, Phoebe, a few years later.
“I swear being in Preppie K they’ve become leaders, not followers,” Blitzer said. “(Phoebe) is the kid everyone looks up to. She’s so confident in her school work and so comfortable.”
Though the main factor for determining a child’s eligibility for transitional kindergarten is their birthday, the program is open to students who don’t fall into the age category. Preppie K has seen success particularly with students who haven’t had preschool experience or who have English as their second language, Tarwater said. The tests children take before their first year of school are one way to tell if a student is right for Preppie K, but there are other ways to tell, Upton said.
Out on the playground at Sierra House, the 26 Preppie K students, nearly half of the 56 total in the district, climbed over the bright jungle gym, chasing each other, laughing and skipping together around the sunny outdoor space. A small group dug in the sand, all contributing to a single sand castle.
“A Preppie K kid would probably play parallel to their friends and not necessarily with their friends,” Riegel said, while watching her class run around on Sierra House’s playground. “It’s great watching them develop and learning how to play with the other kids and share and interact and talk to each other instead of hitting each other.”