It was the very first day of kindergarten at Ocean Beach Elementary. Yet as the children settled in with storybooks, some were already far ahead of their classmates.

“I finished my book,” declared one boy with curly hair, who’d been to preschool. When a classmate offered him another book, the boy said he’d already read it.

Some children had been prepped in preschool and some hadn’t. Some were six months older or more, giving them an edge in maturity and motor skills, while others, often younger, had trouble focusing on a task or froze up when given directions. When they sat down to draw self portraits, one boy took a single crayon and scribbled wildly — a sign that teachers monitor for motor skills — while a girl with pigtails neatly sketched a face and added pupils and eyelashes.

Once upon a time, kindergarten was easier. It was where children got used to school and its routines. But since California created stiffer educational standards more than a decade ago, kindergarteners now learn things they previously weren’t expected to master until first grade, like writing sentences and recognizing words.

That means kids have less time to adjust to school before the academic work sets in, especially if they have never been to preschool. Day one of kindergarten is still devoted almost entirely to learning rules and routines, like how to sit “criss-cross applesauce” on the rug. But it quickly gets more academic, spurring a debate about how schools can ensure that kindergarteners are ready for its rigors.

“Kindergarteners used to just learn letters,” Ocean Beach Elementary teacher Jasmine Greene said with a sigh after school. “Now they have to know letters and sounds by the end of November.”

At Ocean Beach Elementary, kindergarten teachers spend hours in assessments before school even begins, checking what their soon-to-be students know and how they behave. Some can rattle off every alphabet letter and the sound it makes. Others don’t know anything about letters or numbers. When Greene asked them to open books, some were left looking at their fingernails.

Even when kids are academically prepped, some have so much trouble adjusting to school routines that they end up lagging behind in class — a handicap that researchers say can follow them one grade after the next. In another classroom, a boy in a black T-shirt struggled to follow directions after teacher Molly Stewart taught her students to sit cross-legged on their rainbow rug and clasp their hands behind them in “ducktails.” When they got ready to line up, the boy swiveled around on the rug, distracted.

“I want to lay down,” he whined. Stewart shushed him gently, then bent down to whisper to him. “I need you to be a good role model. When you’re in line I need you to be in line correctly. Got it?”

Educators agonize over how to level the playing field, debating whether schools should set a higher bar to get into kindergarten or provide better opportunities to learn beforehand.

Some lawmakers want to stop letting in the youngest kids. Children can now get into kindergarten if they turn 5 years old by early December in the school year. A bill passed by California lawmakers would change the cutoff to September, but the kids whose birthdays fall in between would be eligible for a new, extra year of public schooling called transitional kindergarten.

The idea behind it is that kids would come to kindergarten more prepared. While a few months may seem small, it can mean a big difference for a 5-year-old. Older kindergarteners tend to perform better in school later on; they are even more likely to lead school clubs. Some affluent parents intentionally pay to keep their children in preschool, holding them back from kindergarten so they’ll be older.

And the effects are felt long after kindergarten. Upping the kindergarten age would improve test scores into middle school, a Public Policy Institute of California study concluded.

“Transitional kindergarten isn’t the thing that will fix everything. But it will help,” said Peter Mangione, co-director of the Center for Child and Family Studies at WestEd, an educational research agency. “We don’t want any child to start out school with the message, ‘You can’t do this.’”

But Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said there is little evidence of a magic age for entering kindergarten, because every child is different. He believes the state also needs to strengthen and expand preschool programs. In San Diego County,surveys indicate that only half of young children are in preschool. Thousands of children who are eligible for free preschool are wait-listed; others struggle to afford private preschool.

While kindergarten isn’t even mandatory — San Diego Unified has proposed halving the school day for kindergarteners to save money next year — what happens in these classes has a huge impact. How well kindergarteners can read is a strong predictor of whether they graduate high school.

Wary of plunging kids too quickly into kindergarten, schools in Poway, Santee and elsewhere are already offering something in between. In Allied Gardens, Marvin Elementary allows parents whose children are eligible but not quite ready for kindergarten to instead be put in “junior kindergarten.” Teacher Trisha Livingstone says her junior kindergartners are just as smart, but slightly less mature, less able to focus on schoolwork. Some forget what they’re doing when asked to get backpacks out of their cubbies.

These children would ordinarily be in the regular kindergarten class next door, where children listen better to directions. Instead, the junior kindergarteners are exposed to the same things, but aren’t expected to master them. Naps are allowed.

“It’s probably the best program we’ve ever started here,” said Principal E. Jay Derwae. “We have a waiting list for the next three years.”

As the day wound down at Ocean Beach Elementary, some kids whined for a nap. One broke into tears. Greene and Stewart already sensed who would need extra help — and they worry that the kids know it too.

“When they’re always lost,” Greene said, “they know.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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