The California Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 1381 instating a kindergarten transition program for all 4 year-olds who turn 5 between September and December and who would miss kindergarten entry. Children who are not eligible for kindergarten wait a year to begin school, unless they are fortunate enough to attend private preschool or a community funded program. This transitional program will help bridge the gap for poor students and English language learners, giving them a jump-start on their education. Currently many of these students enter school with thousands of words less vocabulary than their wealthier and English language speaking counterparts, as well as limited social skills, making them way behind before they even begin.
A two-year kindergarten program had existed in California from 1891 until the Great Depression with the goal of equalizing the opportunity for young children to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and social skills. Many children at that time, as is true today, could not afford preschool and could not be prepared by their uneducated parents.
As a former kindergarten teacher, I applaud this new program, which will be phased in over the next three years, for several reasons. First, low income students and those with English as a second language start school way behind others in language development, which is the foundation for everything else. Also, younger children range wildly in their developmental readiness for learning in formal educational environments, so this program will allow those 'younger' 4 and 5 year olds to comfortably transition in. Finally, with all of the rigor in our schools today, this gives them one more year to just be 'kids' - letting them learn in ways that are more natural and with less pressure. Sitting out a year is not a good alternative either for anyone.
My son attended junior kindergarten at a private school even though his birthday is in July. He was quite eligible for regular kindergarten but his preschool teachers and I agreed that he was just not ready. That decision impacted his entire elementary and high school career and enabled him to be quite successful and confident where he might have found himself always trying to pay attention and 'keep up.' As a kindergarten teacher I did hold kids back who were really not ready for the rigor of sitting in desks and paying attention to a teacher at the front with 25-30 other students. I provided those students with more advanced kindergarten work their second year and all went on to succeed with confidence in ensuing grades.
There is only one additional policy change that I would like to see implemented with the transition program: test children for their readiness is a variety areas (academic and social) and let them fluidly move - regardless of their age - into the learning groups that best match their ability. In other words, don't simply use age for determining placement, but look at the whole child. Many enlightened districts do this already with a student-centered learning approach and non-graded early childhood experiences.