State legislation is taking effect this fall that requires all school districts to add free programs for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2, 2022, and Feb. 2, 2023. Known as transitional kindergarten, this pre-kindergarten year introduces students to important life skills in addition to academics.
Several local school districts, including Palo Alto and East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City, already offer transitional kindergarten (TK). Palo Alto offers half-day schooling for kids born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 and plans to expand it next school year to include students who turn 5 through Feb. 2. But other districts will need to launch programs from scratch. The Menlo Park City school district doesn't currently run a TK program; it plans to start offering half-day slots for children turning 5 before Feb. 2 next school year, according to staff. The district estimates about 250 to 300 students will enroll.
Expanding transitional kindergarten is part of an effort to reduce gaps in academic achievement between under-served students and their more advantaged peers. The idea is that by getting kids in classrooms earlier, they will see more equal outcomes later on.
Studies have shown that children who attend transitional kindergarten are better prepared for school than other students. TK students enter kindergarten with stronger mathematics and literacy skills and are more engaged in their learning than students who did not attend transitional kindergarten, according to one 2017 study.
"It's exposing children to that environment and getting them ready, so when they come to kindergarten they just keep on going — they're ready to be there," Palo Alto Unified Assistant Superintendent of Education Services for Elementary Education Anne Brown said.
In TK, kids work on tasks like writing their names, counting to 10 and learning their letters, said Mountain View Whisman School District Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur, whose district currently offers full-day transitional kindergarten.
Beyond academics, a big part of transitional kindergarten is building social skills and learning to work with others. Teachers help students learn how to express their thoughts and feelings, said Sandra McGonagle, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Los Altos School District.
"(It's) definitely more play-based and developmental, as opposed to academic," Baur said.
Fetching a classmate a Band-Aid, putting crayons away and gardening are just some of the activities on a typical day of transitional kindergarten.
Never more needed
The timing of the expansion is perfect since many students were kept home from preschool during the pandemic, said Sonja Virgallito, a TK teacher for Woodside Elementary School, which offers a half-day program.
"It's a gentler start," she said, noting that there is a lot of important development for children between the ages of 4 and 5.
"Some kids really do struggle in kindergarten from the lack of experience. Depending on the kid, if they start their school career not having confidence, that can really affect their whole school career."
Across California, the minimum number of daily instructional minutes for TK next school year will be 180 minutes, including recess. Next school year, class size ratios will be one teacher or teaching assistant per 12 students; classes can have up to 24 children with one teacher and an aide.
After the initial expansion, during the following school year, schools must offer TK to children who turn 5 between September 2023 and April 2024. The law requires that districts offer free education to all 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year. The teacher to student ratio is expected to shrink down to 1:10 by that school year.
TK, which is considered the first year of a two-year kindergarten experience, first came about in California in 2012. Free transitional kindergarten could help level the playing field for families who can't afford to send their kids to costly private preschools, early childhood education leaders say.
Families will still have the option not to enroll their children.
A pricey addition for school districts
Districts say it's pricey to add a new grade level, and there won't be much extra funding coming from the state for the initiative.
The majority of local districts are "community funded," or basic aid, meaning they receive most of their revenue from local sources, including property taxes, parcel taxes and donations. Little of their funding depends on enrollment, so they won't receive more funding per student.
Palo Alto Unified expects to receive $190,000 in state funding for the transitional kindergarten expansion, which Brown said will not cover the district's costs, leaving it to pay out of the general fund.
Palo Alto's expansion of TK is likely to only pencil out to one additional classroom next fall on top of the three that the district currently has. Over time though, the roll-out will be more substantial as the eligible age range expands.
For the time being, Palo Alto intends to keep TK as a half-day program, with three hours and 10 minutes of daily instruction.
Brown estimated that roughly 50% of eligible families are currently participating in Palo Alto's TK program.
Like Palo Alto, Los Altos' McGonagle predicts that next year's expansion will mean one additional classroom on top of the two that already exist.
"Everybody's trying to figure out enrollment right now, but I think we're going to be at three unless we get a surprise bump and make it to four," McGonagle said.
"The state is providing some funding, but certainly not adequate funding to fully cover the cost of implementing a TK program," she added.
Beyond additional staff, McGonagle said that her district also expects to spend money on new curriculum and supplies that are appropriate for the younger students.
Looking at next year, Mountain View Whisman doesn't anticipate any substantial added cost because it had already budgeted for an extra TK class this school year that didn't end up being needed, Baur said. In the longer term though, the program, and the expense, will likely grow more substantially.
Baur called enrollment the "million dollar question" for a lot of districts.
The uncertainty around just how many families may sign up is in part because TK is optional. Parents can stick with their existing preschool or daycare, or keep their children at home.
Parents surveyed by the Menlo Park district were most likely to not want to enroll their kids in TK if they work full time and need a full-day child care option.
Even so, it will cost the Menlo Park district a little over $1 million to start a TK program, but the district will only receive around $100,000 from the state to jumpstart it. The bulk of the cost will go toward paying new staff members (about $733,000). Curriculum, furniture and facilities (at least five portables) make up the rest.
The Ravenswood district, which currently relies on enrollment-based funding from the state, expects to become a basic aid district next school year and hasn't yet ironed out the potential costs of the additional students and facilities needed for TK, according to Chief Business Officer Will Eger.
The Portola Valley district expects to spend about $450,000 to hire two teachers, two teaching assistants, develop curriculum and train staff. Facilities and furniture costs are dependent on enrollment and haven't yet been determined.
District administrators said they are "not holding their breaths" that the state will step in with extra TK funding.
The Las Lomitas and Woodside districts have not finalized their TK budgets for next school year.
Beyond budget worries, administrators, already facing staffing shortages, are concerned about filling TK teacher slots.
"I'm not going to lie, given the teacher shortage right now, we have concerns," said Menlo Park district's Assistant Superintendent Jammie Behrendt.
By August 2023, TK teachers are required to have completed at least 24 units in early childhood education (ECE). The San Mateo County Office of Education recently applied for a $250,000 state grant to plan for professional development for teachers to fulfill ECE units.
Dayna Chung, co-founder and executive director of the Community Equity Collaborative, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that was formed in 2017 to help solve educational inequities, said legislators have succeeded in pushing for sizable investments in early care and education.
"I can say we have a long way to go in building the career pathways required to equip a workforce capable of meeting expanded care demands," she said in an email.
Closing achievement gaps
Statewide, the high school graduation rate last year was 86.8%, but that number was lower for socioeconomically disadvantaged students (84.1%), those learning English (72.8%) and kids with disabilities (70.5%).
There are also disparities by race. Over 90% of white students and nearly 95% of Asian students in California graduated high school on time last year, compared with 84.1% of Hispanic students and 80.3% of Black students.
According to Brown, Palo Alto is focusing on making sure that students' backgrounds don't pre-determine their outcome in school. Having kids in classrooms early can only help, she said.
Palo Alto Unified already offers an "extended transitional kindergarten" program that enrolls certain students — those who turn 5 after Dec. 2 but before the last day of the school year — to take part in TK. To qualify, a student has to either have parents who haven't received a high school diploma, be eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, or be homeless, migrant or in foster care.
The program is intended to give students access to TK whose families may not be able to afford a traditional preschool program, Brown said.
With the new state law expanding TK, all students will ultimately be eligible for transitional kindergarten, regardless of their birthday or family background.
"There's a lot of different complicating things, but to have a TK program that everyone can access I think is wonderful," Brown said. "I wish my children had that."
Register for TK
Parents and guardians can register their children for transitional kindergarten for the 2022-23 school year below:
Las Lomitas: when available
Ravenswood: when available
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2022 at 11:23 am
on Feb 25, 2022 at 11:23 am
I think it is a good move, but I would say that this transitional year should really be a transitional semester. The second semester should really ramp up the expectations. A year is a long time in the life of a 4 year old and treating them all the same is never a good idea. Those who are young for their academic year with a late birthday are able to catch up very quickly with a transitional start, but keeping them behind for a full year often get bored. We have one with a late birthday and although the slower pace may have suited her at first, she soon was very bored in kindergarten as the year progressed. By the end of kindergarten she actually said she didn't like school as it was boring being held back from reading at her own ability and not moving on quickly enough in math to suit her. I believe the challenge has increased since her start, but advancing mid year to another level with two intakes per year is a successful way to start a formal education.