SAN JOSE -- Just minutes into the new school year on Wednesday, any anxiety felt by some of San Jose's newest students already was ebbing as a class of 4-year-olds listened raptly to teacher Christina Bingham tell the story of a raccoon reluctant to leave his mom and go to school.
The first day of school is a time of fresh beginnings, with excitement over new uniforms, different classrooms and budding friendships. But enthusiasm melds with apprehension among the very young, particularly for those in transitional kindergarten -- California's newest grade, for children turning 5 in the first three months of the school year. They aren't quite ready for kindergarten, but beyond preschool. The program has been phased in since 2012.
"It's teaching students how to be students -- how to be independent workers and how to get along with 30 others," said Bingham, of San Jose Unified's Los Alamitos Elementary.
San Jose Unified is among six school districts in the South Bay and on the Peninsula that are starting school this week. Nearly all other public schools resume later this month.
Lining up by class on the Los Alamitos playground, plenty of the youngest students were clinging to dad's leg or burying faces in mom's shoulder. But miraculously, after they filed into Room K1, students found their names marked on the rainbow-hued rug and focused on Bingham.
Getting up early
"It's an exciting moment," said Jerry Zhang, whose son Jack got up early Wednesday and came into his parents' bedroom already dressed.
"I don't know how she does it with 30 students," said Magdalena Barker, whose daughter Riley is in Bingham's class.
The recipe for an outstanding elementary teacher might read one part each of preparation and teaching skills, a good dose of organization, a calm temperament -- and heaping measures of kindness, gentleness and caring.
What immediately is apparent in Bingham, 31, who was the Los Alamitos 2013-14 teacher of the year, is her ability to be present in the moment, to pay attention to various plaintive voices while not detouring from her lesson.
"It's her patience, her love of teaching and her understanding of how the child's brain develops" that helps make her successful said Principal Tom Rousseau.
At Los Alamitos in the Almaden Valley, most came ready to learn. Andres Teocuahutli Herrera proudly showed the supplies he was toting -- glue sticks, pencils, markers, Lysol wipes, Kleenex.
"You're going to learn a lot of things," his dad, Gerardo Herrera told him. "You're going to make new friends."
Bingham wasted no time launching into lessons.
Learning the rules
At the tinkle of a small bell, she got the attention of the packed classroom and began a welcome song. Within minutes, after parents filed out, she had gently reminded her students to raise their hands to be recognized, sit "crisscross applesauce" on the carpet, not to chew or play with their name tags hanging around their necks -- and for their eyes, ears and minds to be working but their mouths to be resting.
"Before leading a classroom tour, she asks, "Do you think you are grown-up enough to do this?"
"Yes!" the class choruses. "I'm 4!" many add.
Bingham noted earlier that "to succeed all year, you need the teacher to be calm and collected on the first day." Being well-prepared helps her focus on students.
She handed parents entering her room a sheet with a scavenger-hunt-type challenge, to find their children's name tags, cubby, square on the rainbow carpet, and the class Kleenex box and hand sanitizer, bathroom, library and computers. Coloring sheets labeled with a child's name and boxes of pointy, fresh crayons were set on little tables.
"There's a purpose behind everything," said Bingham, who leaves most of her walls blank, to not overstimulate kids and to be filled later with student work.
Focus on behavior
The beginning of the year is about establishing routines and rules. Books focus heavily on behavior, like "Words Are Not for Hurting, Hands Are Not for Hitting." And while transitional kindergarten includes math, English and computer time, they mostly serve as groundwork.
Bingham uses an analogy to reassure parents anxious about the focus on children's development. "I say that when a child is ready to walk, they'll walk. As parents we lay the foundation to support them, so when they're ready, they will succeed."
Attention to myriad details contributes to a high-functioning school. On Monday Bingham and four kindergarten teachers conferred on lists of words to teach, computer lab schedules, recess times and needed purchases -- beanbag chairs, tricycles, a guinea pig, plastic folders, some funded by parent donations, but many not.
There were hours of cutting, folding, copying, laminating and scrubbing.
"Anything times 30 takes a long time," Bingham said.
"I am passionate about what I do," she said. The start of school involves guiding worried parents as well as children. "I just hold their hands for the first months," she said about parents. "For many of them, sending a child to kindergarten is like sending them to college."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.
SANTA CLARA COUNTY DISTRICTS
Aug. 12 -- East Side Union
Aug. 13 -- San Jose Unified
Aug. 14 -- Morgan Hill
Aug. 18 -- Campbell Elementary, Cupertino, Loma Prieta, Los Gatos, Mountain View-Whisman, Oak Grove, Saratoga, Campbell High, Fremont Union High, Los Gatos-Saratoga High, Mountain View-Los Altos High, Milpitas, Palo Alto, Santa Clara
Aug. 19 -- Lakeside, Moreland, Sunnyvale, Union, Gilroy
Aug. 20 -- Cambrian, Evergreen, Franklin-McKinley, Los Altos Elementary, Orchard
Aug. 21 -- Mt. Pleasant
Aug. 25 -- Berryessa
Aug. 27 -- Alum Rock
Sept. 2 -- Luther Burbank
SAN MATEO COUNTY DISTRICTS
Aug. 12 -- San Mateo Union High
Aug. 13 -- South San Francisco
Aug. 14 -- Jefferson Union High
Aug. 19 -- Sequoia Union High
Aug. 20 -- Bayshore, Jefferson Elementary, La Honda-Pescadero, Menlo Park
Aug. 21 -- Brisbane, Las Lomitas, Ravenswood
Aug. 25 -- Cabrillo, Hillsborough, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Carlos
Aug. 26 -- Burlingame
Aug. 27 -- Belmont-Redwood Shores, Pacifica, San Mateo-Foster City , Woodside
Aug. 28 -- San Bruno Park
Sept. 2 -- Millbrae
1. Year-round schools started July 30
Sources: Santa Clara and San Mateo county offices of education