JK/TK Adds Another Educational Option for Young Families

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Joel Matthews is delighted.

And not just about the money this father of three boys saves this year by having his middle son, Kashton, enrolled in Township Elementary School’s Junior Kindergarten/Transitional Kindergarten (JK/TK) program.

It’s more about how Kashton, 5, is thriving at Township.

“What’s so nice is that my son is even more ready for kindergarten. Kindergarten next year will be a cakewalk,” he said.

For the last six years, Simi Valley Unified School District, along with districts throughout the state, has offered JK/TK classes to area families.

JK/TK serves as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. These free programs target children whose will turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 on the year they enter school, which means they just miss the birthday cut-off for “regular” kindergarten. (For this coming school year, a child born on Aug. 15, 2010 would be admitted into kindergarten whereas a child born Sept 15, 2010 would enroll in JK/TK.) JK/TK also serves children whose parents feel their child would benefit from an extra year of kindergarten experience. JK/TK students go into regular kindergarten when they are done with their JK/TK year.

In the case of the Matthews family, Kashton attended two years of private preschool before going to Township. Kashton missed the kindergarten cut-off age by two weeks, and Joel Matthews said he and his wife are happy they gave Township’s program a try.

“He’s learning at a young age what it’s like to be in a classroom,” he said. “I think that’s the greatest thing and all kids should do this.”

Janet Herman has 26 JK/TK students in her class at Township, including Kashton. Twenty-two kids are TK and the rest are JK, but the class is blended and easily taught together.

On a recent morning visit, her students gathered on the rug around Herman as she read aloud from a book. Then it was Center Time, where students chose different activities—most play-based—and did them for the hour before lunch.

At one table, children were cutting pictures and pasting them onto papers. Classroom volunteers helped the children as needed and everyone was treated with affection and patience.

On the rug, several students played with dolls, animal figures and blocks. Koki Omuro decided that his dinosaurs needed a zoo, so he built one from blocks. Then he made cages for a pig and a cow, all the while talking confidently about what he was building and why. This was a child, Herman said, who started the school year speaking no English. Now he is fluent.

Herman worked with a handful of children at a half-round table where the students were asked to finish the sentence, “I like…” with words and a picture. She helped each student sound out the words to write, which was easy for them because they already knew their alphabet. The students had fun answering Herman’s questions and didn’t seem to know that they were learning, which is one large reason why Sheila Decker is so happy to have her daughter, Elizabeth, in the program.

“I think the biggest difference between JK/TK and a regular kindergarten program is that they still have time to play,” Decker said. “It’s a more natural learning process. They are still learning. They have sight words and blended words and they learn all the letters of the alphabet. But they still have this time where they explore.

“It’s a gift that she’s getting the mix of preschool and academics,” Decker continued. “It’s like a total bonus year for her.”

“The JK/TK program gives students the ‘gift of time’ to develop socially, emotionally and academically before entering traditional kindergarten,” said Kathy Roth, the district’s director of elementary education. “A developmental approach involves students learning in a less formal setting through hands-on activities and their senses. This includes singing, purposeful movement and engagement strategies that inspire a love of learning by discovery.”

As for Herman, she loves teaching in this age group.

“I think JK/TK provides a real developmental component that’s so important for this age,” she said.

Dorothee Chadda is a 9th-grade English teacher. She put her son, Adi, into the JK/TK program because she approved of the curriculum. All of the JK/TK teachers are credentialed. They collaborate with each other to develop appropriate curriculum.

“For me as a teacher I look extensively at the curriculum. I do my own research and I see the way its being implemented in the classroom and it works. What matters to me is that my kid is able to use this program independently. The independence part is what’s important to me,” she said.

The program began six years ago at Berylwood Elementary with two classes, Herman said. Now there are nine classes spread among six schools.

As the program’s enrollment grows, classes will be added at more campuses. Right now, JK/TK classes are placed throughout the offer the greatest accessibility to the most families. A family living on the east side of Simi will likely be offered a spot in a JK/TK class on that side of the city. Because it’s not known until the start of school how many children will be enrolled in JK/TK and where the classes will be best located to help the most families, parents don’t have the option of designating at what campus they wish their child to be placed.

“We want this program to grow,” Roth said. “JK/TK gives our students an incredible opportunity to learn in a developmentally-appropriate manner, with highly qualified teachers guiding them. It provides early-childhood educational support for families in our community at no direct cost to those families.”

For working families, most JK/TK classes are located at schools with before- and after-school care. Plans are being made now to make JK/TK and regular kindergarten into all-day programs. (These classes would be released 10 minutes before the first-sixth grade classes.)

Township Principal Lori Neiman said about half of her JK/TK parents have opted to remain at Township for kindergarten while the other half will either attend their neighborhood schools or have applied for School of Choice to other campuses.

For more information about JK/TK, visit the district’s website at www.simivalleyusd.org or pick up an application at your neighborhood school.