Palo Alto teacher honored for work on new kindergarten law

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Palo Alto teacher Natalie Bivas has seen first-hand how the high standards for exiting kindergarten affect her young students.

They have to be able to write 20 words without assistance, Bivas said, as well as solve algebraic expressions and comprehend scenarios enough to ask questions.

Coaxing her students to perform such tasks goes against her principles, Bivas explained, but the state requires it.


Natalie Bivas

“I know this is wrong, but I’m doing it anyway,” she said. “To ask a 4-year-old to write the word ‘barn’ or ‘apple’ is just morally wrong. Some can’t even hold a pencil.”


Eventually, Bivas noticed a pattern. Most of the kids she suggests should be retained for a second year of kindergarten have fall birthdays.

Bivas, a reading specialist at Palo Verde Elementary School for the past 12 years, and Diana Argenti, a teacher at Walter Hays Elementary School, were honored at a special reception earlier this month hosted by state Sen. Joe Simitian (D–Palo Alto). He credited the duo with inspiring the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which requires children be 5 years old when they start kindergarten.

The goal of the bill, which Simitian authored, is to ensure kindergarteners are more socially, emotionally and developmentally ready to tackle the demands of their curriculum.

“It is really my upbringing and culture as a Jew that would not allow me to stay silent in the face of something I believed was wrong and damaging,” said Bivas, a member of Congre-gation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. “We are told not to stand idly by. Speaking out and taking action seemed as natural as breathing.”

The result of her determination is the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which will be phased in over three years beginning in fall 2012. It adjusts the birthday cutoff for kids entering kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.

Before the bill became law, California was one of only four states nationwide that allowed children to enter kindergarten if they turned 5 by Dec. 2.

The new law also establishes a year of “transitional kindergarten” for students with late birthdays who are not eligible to start kindergarten in the year they turn 5. 

About two years ago, Bivas approached Simitian at his “Sidewalk Town Hall” inside the Menlo Park Farmer’s Market. Simitian has represented the 11th State Senate District, which incorporates portions of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, since 2004.

Bivas announced her intentions to change the age of incoming kindergarten students, but it was hardly the first time Simitian had heard about the issue.

For more than a decade, politicians on both sides of the aisle in Sacramento have agreed that keeping 4-year-olds out of kindergarten is a good idea, but couldn’t see eye-to-eye on how to make it happen.   

State Sen. George Runner (R–Antelope Valley), who established Desert Christian Schools in the 1970s, pushed for legislation similar to Simitian’s but failed twice.

After her initial conversation with Simitian, Bivas sent an e-mail to garner support from teachers in Palo Alto’s 11 elementary schools. Seventy responded, but Bivas’ efforts stalled for a year.

Argenti, however, was curious about what had transpired following that initial e-mail. She contacted Bivas, and the pair drafted a petition that was eventually signed by nearly 300 of their Palo Alto teaching colleagues.

They made an appointment with Simitian to present their findings. He agreed to author Senate Bill 1381.

“They really made the case, as pretty much all the research does, that younger kids are struggling with today’s kindergarten,” Simitian told KQED Radio News. “And that that struggle continues — not just in the kindergarten year, but year after year after year.”

What followed was a grassroots movement led by Bivas and Argenti, who urged peers to write their state representatives and call Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office to support their cause.

The original bill, which did not allow for the transitional kindergarten, received opposition from the California Teachers Association, which later supported the bill with the added clause.

The bill was signed into law on the last night of the state Senate session, Sept. 30, with minutes to spare.

“The governor had hundreds of bills to contemplate, so what were the chances that he got to ours?” Bivas said. “I figured it was a lost cause.”

Throughout the process, Bivas said she was struck by the question asked over and over by her colleagues: Why did she speak up?

“We know Jews do this,” she said. “I wouldn’t think not to speak up. It’s our upbringing and what we’re told to do. We have to right the wrongs and perform acts of tikkun olam to make the world better.”