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Published in Print: January 30, 2002, as California Promotes Access To Preschool Records

California Promotes Access To Preschool Records

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Many kindergarten teachers in California are likely to get a close look at the talents and needs of some of their future students even before the youngsters set foot in their classrooms.

The state's new Preschool Transfer Act, signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis last October, allows—with parents' permission—the records of pupils in state- financed preschools or the federal Head Start program to be transferred to their elementary schools. Such records could include developmental or health information, as well as any diagnostic testing.

Many early-childhood- education advocates and experts across the country see the California law as a significant step toward better communication between the preschool education community and the K-12 system. Some educators, though, have expressed concern that elementary teachers and administrators might use preschool records to unfairly label children before they really get to know them.

Still, one leading early-childhood researcher says the benefits of greater communication outweigh the risks. And he hopes other states follow in the lead of California.

"The increased sharing of information is a very positive thing," said Richard Clifford, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We have to trust that our partners are going to do what's in the best interest of children."

While entering kindergarten is an important rite of passage for a child, activities designed to make the process run smoothly traditionally have originated at the district or school level, not in the halls of state government.

And while many early-childhood programs forward information on children to elementary schools on a voluntary basis, experts say policies such as the one in California could be signaling a shift toward more formalized transition procedures.

In Massachusetts, for instance, acting Gov. Jane Swift's Commission on School Readiness issued a series of recommendations last November that includes requiring schools to have "orientation plans," which would include designating a school official to be responsible for helping children make the transition from preschool to kindergarten—or, for those youngsters who didn't attend preschool, from home to kindergarten. But Margaret Blood, the president of Strategies for Children, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that is lobbying for universal access to preschool and full-day kindergarten in the state, believes the Massachusetts recommendations do not go far enough.

"We need some way for the kindergarten teacher to get a sense of this child," she said. Ms. Blood added that she likes an idea being tried in some communities in the state in which preschool teachers prepare portfolios of their pupils' work and send them with the youngsters to kindergarten.

Some state education departments have also held workshops on the transition issue that bring representatives of the K-12 system together with early-childhood educators. New Hampshire and Pennsylvania both convened such conferences last year. "Schools really seem to be recognizing that they need to find a way to communicate more formally with the early- childhood community," said Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Mr. Pianta, who has conducted extensive surveys of kindergarten teachers on this issue, said some educators, however, prefer to begin the school year without background information on their new pupils.

"We've had kindergarten teachers who say, 'We don't want to know that stuff,' " he said.

Starting Early

Enhancing the Transition to Kindergarten, a manual co-written by Mr. Pianta, recommends a variety of both simple and more involved strategies schools can use that can help children. In fact, preparing children for the move to kindergarten can begin as early as the beginning of the last year of preschool, the guide says.

Compiling class lists of new kindergartners and bringing future classmates together for social activities are two tasks that can be done during the spring before the new school year. Inviting children into the school during the summer leading up to the kindergarten year is another way to help familiarize children with their new routine, the manual says.

For the past three years, the 325-student Riverview Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn., has been holding a three-week "campus preview" during the summer for incoming kindergartners. Lasting for three weeks, the preview is somewhat similar to a summer school program, but is focused on getting youngsters to be comfortable with the kindergarten routine.

"We knew that we needed to do something to prepare our students," said Elizabeth A. Heffernan, the principal of the school, which has a student population that comes mostly from low-income neighborhoods.

On the first day of school last fall, Ms. Heffernan observed the benefits of the program. "You could definitely tell those kindergartners who were comfortable in the building," she said.

Other transition activities listed in Mr. Pianta's guide include visits to preschools by school staff members and the incorporation of kindergarten routines or activities into the preschool classroom.

Summer programs, such as the one at Riverview Elementary School, also give incoming kindergartners an opportunity to meet children from other preschools or child-care centers.

The manual notes, however, that transition activities are more difficult to coordinate with preschool or Head Start programs that are not operated by school districts.

And some experts point out that many children don't attend preschool, thus making it difficult if not impossible to get portfolios or education-related records for them before the start of kindergarten.

Vol. 21, Issue 20, Pages 19-20

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