Schwarzenegger signs 'kindergarten readiness' bill sparked by Palo Alto teachers

Bill affecting 120,000 kids statewide began with teachers' petition to Simitian

Two Palo Alto teachers were celebrating today after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed their "kindergarten readiness" bill into law late Thursday.

The new law, requiring that children be 5 years old to start kindergarten, will affect up to 120,000 California children each year beginning in 2012.

The legislation sprang from a petition written by Walter Hays kindergarten teacher Diana Argenti and Palo Verde reading specialist Natalie Bivas.

After gathering signatures from 289 of their Palo Alto colleagues, the women approached State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who shepherded the legislation, with attendant compromises, through Sacramento.

Shortly after Schwarzenneger signed the bill Thursday night, Simitian was phoning Argenti and Bivas to share the news.

"Had these two teachers not come into my office with a petition signed by 289 of their peers, this is not an issue I'd likely have taken up," Simitian said.

Crediting Simitian's legislative prowess for getting the bill through after decades of failed efforts by others, Bivas quipped, "I feel very powerful today."

Argenti said the ordeal has changed her view of politics.

"I've never done anything political and always thought that politicians don't listen," she said Friday morning as she prepared to greet students in her classroom.

"This made me realize that if you bond together in a group, they do listen. It's not because of Natalie and me -- it's the power of numbers.

"Once people knew this was happening, we got support from kindergarten teachers all over the state."

As the kindergarten curriculum has grown more academic, Argenti and Bivas had noticed an increasing divide between early readers and kids who weren't really ready for the rigors of kindergarten – and those tended to be the younger students.

Their petition asked that California move it's fifth-birthday cutoff date for kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. California is one of very few states still permitting kindergarten entrance for children turning 5 as late as December.

The shift to a Sept. 1 cutoff date will be phased in, starting in 2012. For the 120,000 kids a year who turn 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2, the state will offer a "transitional kindergarten" program similar to Palo Alto's Young Fives.

"This is a victory for kids on two fronts," Simitian said in a press release.

"We start kids when they're ready to succeed in school, and for younger children we provide a 'get ready' year of instruction as well."

The legislation ensures that childrens' "academic careers are built on a strong foundation," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

Argenti said she thinks teachers and parents will be happy with the change.

And she'll be getting fewer phone calls. Typically, each years she fields calls from parents of kids with fall birthdays, agonizing over whether they should enroll their four-year-olds in kindergarten.

"They're in agony: 'Should I do ? Should I not do it?' Now they don't have to agonize about it," she said.

The teachers' efforts began some years ago when Bivas approached Simitian at a Menlo Park constituents' meeting.

"I told him, 'I'm really upset -- these kids are just too young. Four-year-olds can't handle pencil and paper work.'

"He said, 'we've been trying to get this for 20 years and the other side keeps putting it down.' He told me if I gathered up some teachers we could come into his office and talk with him about it."

Bivas's e-mail to colleagues yielded 70 responses from teachers wanting to meet with Simitian. When Simitian's office told her they only had room for three to five, she was baffled about whom to choose and let it sit.

The issue was revived a year later when Argenti was cleaning out her e-mail and contacted Bivas to ask what had happened. At that point, in the winter of 2009, the two circulated their petition.

During the legislative process, Bivas said she was surprised to learn that the date change historically had been opposed by the California Teachers' Association.

"We were shocked to find out that our own union had opposed the bill over and over again. The reason was because the money saved would not be placed back into education and, most importantly, these children (with birthdays between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2) would be left high and dry.

"We were kind of mystified by that opposition, but we also didn't like the idea these kids would be left high and dry."

Simitian satisfied many opponents by adding a transitional-kindergarten provision for kids with fall birthdays.

"That pleased everybody," Bivas said.

"So many children are now entering school with a second language, and this gives them one more year of school to acquire English.

"I think it's a win-win situation that will really help close the achievement gap and raise our test scores."

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