Perched on a child-sized chair in her colorful, cozy classroom, Walter Hays Elementary School teacher Diana Argenti pondered a checklist of academic standards her 20 kindergarteners must master by this June.
There is reading; there is math; there is writing, spelling and more.
And there is something wrong with this picture, Argenti and her colleagues say.
Today's kindergarten academics are simply too much, too soon for many of the 100,000 California children who each year enter school before their fifth birthdays.
Argenti, along with Palo Verde Elementary School reading specialist Natalie Bivas and 287 of their Palo Alto teaching colleagues, have petitioned State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to help make sure kids are 5 years old before they start kindergarten. That would mean changing the law to require students be 5 by Sept. 1 instead of by Dec. 2, as is currently the case.
"Most teachers don't like to make waves we stay in our classrooms and do the best we can," Argenti said. "But I just wish the politicians could come out and spend a couple of days here."
In most cases, those who struggle are the younger ones, the ones who are still 4 years old when they start school, Bivas said.
"As the kindergarten curriculum has become more academic, we've noticed a bigger divide between the early readers and children who aren't really ready," Argenti said.
Most children begin to read anywhere from the ages of 4 to 7. Thus, on the first day of kindergarten, some won't know their letters and sounds while a precocious few will be devouring chapter books.
In their letter to Simitian, Argenti and Bivas cite a California Performance Review study in which "teachers report 48 percent of students are not ready for the kindergarten curriculum."
"At 4, these children are not socially, emotionally and developmentally ready to handle the academic demands of our curriculum," the letter says. "Today's kindergarteners are expected to read, to do mathematics and to use paper and pencil competently. Thus, many of our especially young students are those in need of retention and/or other special services to succeed."
California is one of very few states that permit kindergarten entrance for children turning 5 as late as December.
As kindergartens across the nation have stepped up academic demands, many states have pushed their birth-date requirements to August and September, with a significant majority now in that range. A few states, including Indiana, require even earlier birthdays.
Previous legislative efforts to move the California date have failed, for reasons having more to do with finances than educational needs, Argenti and Simitian said.
"I wish I could tell you it was thoughtful educational debate driving the conversation, but it's really about the dollars," said Simitian, who served on the Palo Alto school board from 1983 to 1991.
Some school districts, including Palo Alto, offer a pre-kindergarten "Young Fives" program for children who are old enough for kindergarten but show signs of immaturity that could prevent them from succeeding. Admission to Young Fives, which requires parent participation, is done after professional assessment of a child's readiness for kindergarten.
Argenti, who has taught at Walter Hays for 16 years, began as a kindergarten teacher then moved to first-grade for 11 years. When enrollment shifted four years ago, she volunteered to return to the younger children.
"When I moved back to kindergarten, I was curious about how it had changed -- it's changed a lot," she said. Kindergarteners now must be able to count to at least 30; arrange numbers in order from 1 to 20; know shapes such as cones, spheres, cubes, trapezoids and rhombuses; and read simple books.
Meeting those benchmarks crowds out the time kindergarteners used to spend on things such as cutting, sharing, taping, singing and working with clay.
"I don't think it's bad to have assessments and do benchmarks, but there needs to be fluidity with it because there's a developmental range," Argenti said. "The way things are set up now, you feel a lot of pressure."
Bivas, who works individually with first-graders on reading, opened "Animal Homes," a book she described as the lowest-level reader for the end of first grade.
"Porcupines put grass inside logs to make homes for their babies," the book said. "Other animals make their homes in logs, too."
"These books are hard," Bivas said. "I opened up a book today and one of the words was 'disgusting.' I'm reading to a child who still has all of his or her baby teeth.
"We (teachers) all feel that pressure -- racing, racing, racing to get to that benchmark."