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Early Childhood Education

Transitional Kindergarten For Every 4-Year-Old Could Reshape Child Care In LA — And Not Everyone Loves That

A classroom of students in early transitional kindergarten.
Kristina Damon's early transitional kindergarten class at Carver Elementary School in Long Beach.
(Mariana Dale
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Offering transitional kindergarten for every 4-year-old could reshape child care and preschool in California.

Listen: Why The Reception To The Transitional Kindergarten Proposal Is Mixed

Governor Gavin Newsom proposed the transitional kindergarten, or TK, expansion last month, and state legislators included the estimated $2.7 billion it’ll take to run the program each year in the budget deal passed last week. Lawmakers and the governor have until June 15 to reach a final agreement.

Educators and advocates for kids and families have pushed for increased access to early childhood programs for years, but the reception to the transitional kindergarten proposal is mixed.

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LAist talked with parents who loved the TK program, and child care providers who say it could hurt an industry that’s already been battered by the pandemic.

I really approach everything as a way to build confidence and skills for future learning.
— Kristina Damon, Long Beach early transitional kindergarten teacher

In an early transitional kindergarten class at Carver Elementary in Long Beach on a recent Tuesday morning, 5-year-old Abram Torrez snapped together colorful cubes.

“Abram, you want to read us your pattern?” teacher Kristina Damon asked from behind a clear plastic mask. A small speaker clipped to her hip amplified her voice throughout the classroom.

“Green, yellow, green, yellow, green, yellow,” Torrez said, pointing to each color in the stack.

Damon said the two-and-a-half hour day is a mix of academics and play. For example, identifying and creating patterns is a foundational math skill, and part of the California Preschool Learning Foundations on which transitional kindergarten is supposed to be based.

“I really approach everything as a way to build confidence and skills for future learning,” Damon said.

She helped create the Long Beach Unified precursor to transitional kindergarten, “Preppy K,” back in 2007.

“We saw parents not sending their children to school because they weren't ready,” Damon said. “Then we saw children coming to school that were struggling unnecessarily.”

In 2010, California moved the age cutoff for kindergarten to September 1, and required districts to start offering a new grade called transitional kindergarten, but only to kids with 5th birthdays between September and December of the current school year.

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Yvonne Martini, a longtime kindergarten teacher in the San Gabriel Valley’s Rowland Unified School District, said one of the biggest differences between the grades is the emphasis on social and emotional learning.

“When kids learn to share, and when they learn to take turns and resolve conflicts, use their words, instead of you know, falling down and having a tantrum, that is all part of school behavior, which is going to lead to successful learners,” said Martini, who’s now taught TK for about six years.

In a recent Zoom transitional kindergarten session, Martini asked the students to place their hands on their hearts.

Fourteen little voices chimed in to sing “we wish you well,” to their peers who couldn’t sign on for class that day.

Mom Angeli Querido said it’s lessons like these that have helped her daughter Quinn develop a “caring heart.”

“She's learned about how to be a good friend, how to take care of yourself,” Querido said.

A boy in a red shirt holds a pencil in his right hand.
"Even though academics are harder for him he enjoys going to school," mom Jaymi Torrez said of her son Abram.
(Mariana Dale/ LAIST)

In the years since transition kindergarten was first rolled out, Long Beach Unified and several other Southern California districts started drawing on additional sources of funding to offer transitional kindergarten to “younger fours,” what is currently referred to as "early" transitional kindergarten.

“We've seen some really strong increased academic achievement in our students in those foundational skills, and those foundational math knowledge and skills,” said Brian Moskovitz, Long Beach Unified assistant superintendent of early learning and elementary schools. The non-profit American Institutes for Research found similar results among kindergarteners statewide.

“My son Abram literally knew two letters when he went in,” said mom Jaymi Torrez of his experience in Damon’s early transitional kindergarten class. “I think he'll probably come out knowing all of his letters, and his numbers, counting to five, a lot of concepts.”

Torrez’s now 8-year old daughter, Lila, is also an alumna of Damon’s transitional kindergarten class.

“Her struggles were always more social,” Torrez said. “She really wanted to be a leader — that's what we say now instead of bossy — and Mrs. Damon was great about helping her develop that in more healthy ways.”

The program was also a welcome financial relief — the average tuition for a 4-year-old in California is $956 a month.

“We could afford the private preschool but it would come at a great cost to the rest of our lives,” Torrez said.

 A woman with a lion puppet on her right hand speaks to a class of 4-and-5-year-olds.
Leo the lion visits Mrs. Damon's class for a lesson on how to add new sounds to words.
(Mariana Dale/ LAIST)

Creating A High Quality Program For All Early Learners

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the transitional kindergarten expansion proposal on May 12, he called it “a commitment that all 4-year-olds will get high quality instructional education.”

It’s worth taking a closer look at the terms “high quality” and "all." California’s current transitional kindergarten program meets three of the National Institute for Early Education Research or NIEER’s 10 quality standards for early childhood education.

One area where the TK program falls short is staff-to-student ratios. There can be up to 33 4-year-olds in one classroom. Meanwhile, California’s state preschools are staffed with one adult for every eight children.

Gov. Newsom has proposed reducing the transitional kindergarten ratio to one teacher for every 12 students with an additional $740 million.

“We're all for getting children served and family served, but nervous about what it would look like in terms of quality,” said Libby Soria, a professor of child development at Merced College in the Central Valley.

And while this is not part of NIEER’s quality standards, educators also point out that transitional kindergarten follows the school calendar and can go as little as three hours, though some school districts offer longer programs.

Newsom’s proposal and Assembly Bill 22 include “wraparound child care services” for families that need them, but the details still need to be worked out.

We're all for getting children served and family served, but nervous about what it would look like in terms of quality.
— Libby Soria, Merced College professor of child development

Even if it’s available, not every family chooses transitional kindergarten.

Liz Lopez is a faculty member in the child development department at Los Angeles Harbor College and mom to three boys, including a 5-year-old who was eligible for TK last year.

“It was difficult for not only for me to put my child behind a screen, but also to say I'm going to put him in a TK program that I know is oftentimes academically driven, when he is very curious and creative and play-based,” Lopez said. She chose to keep him in preschool at a nearby community college.

“We want universal preschool, but we want it to be in a way where it serves all types and all kinds of families,” Lopez said.

In the absence of a universal child care or preschool option, California has a diverse network of programs and caregivers.

Overall, less than half of 4-year-olds in the state are currently enrolled in a public preschool program, according to NIEER. These include:

  • The federally funded Head Start program, which is limited to low-income families and children in the foster care system. The maximum income for a family of four is $26,500 a year.
  • California’s state preschool program, which prioritizes children at risk of abuse and families who make less than 85% of the state median income. The ceiling for a family of four is $84,822.
  • Transitional kindergarten is the only free statewide early education program that isn’t limited by income, just by the time of year a child is born. The California Department of Education counted 100,851 students enrolled in TK in the 2019-2020 school year.

The 54% of 4-year-olds not enrolled in a public program might attend a for-profit or non-profit preschool, co-op, family child care homes, or be cared for by a parent or relative.

Long Beach Unified administrator Brian Moskovitz acknowledges that the school district, which along with TK also offers a child development program for low-income families and Head Start, is just one component of the early education system.

“When you're talking about birth through age 5, we know that there really does need to be a whole community approach,” Moskovitz said.

But some advocacy groups and early education providers say the proposal to expand transitional kindergarten will dismantle that community-wide system of early learning and care.

‘Without Those Feet In The Door...’

Andrea Fernandez is the vice president of education at the California Children’s Academy, a non-profit that has provided child care and preschool for low-income families throughout Los Angeles County for 50 years.

She points to the program’s long hours — 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — low-staff to child ratios, mental health support for kids,and connections to community resources such as food banks.

Fernandez herself relied on the Academy years ago as a single mom, and “without that, I wouldn't be where I am today,” she said.

Still, she said families might choose to switch to a TK program if it means they can drop their younger and older kids off at the same school or avoid the fees charged to some parents who qualify for subsidized child care through the state. That could hurt daycares' business, she said.

“Without those feet in the door, we're losing contract dollars. It's very hard to make that up,” Fernandez said.

The money the academy receives from the state to care for these 4-year-olds helps offset the higher cost of caring for babies and toddlers.

“A major consequence of universal preschool through public schools is a devastating impact to child care operations,” wrote the Child Care Law Center, Californians for Quality Early Learning, the California Association for the Education of Young Children, and dozens of individual early learning and care programs in a letter asking Newsom and the legislature to delay the TK expansion.

California Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, sponsored legislation that sought to expand transitional kindergarten even before the governor’s most recent proposal. He acknowledges that the rates the state pays the child care providers who already serve low-income families are inadequate.

About Child Care, Unfiltered

“They pay our workforce poverty wages,” McCarty said. “Frankly, some of the workers can easily go work in a fast food restaurant and make more money.”

The state Senate and Assembly agreed on a budget deal last week that would increase rates for child care providers, along with expanding transitional kindergarten over the next four years.

“We will not adopt a budget that doesn't adequately increase rates,” McCarty said.

McCarty also said there’s an opportunity for providers currently enrolling 4-year-olds to instead serve more young children with new state funding.

But taking in more infants and toddlers is not the ideal solution, said Fernandez, with California Children’s Academy. It would require renovating classrooms and yards, changes in licensing, and professional development for staff.

“What we do makes a difference [for 4-year-olds],” Fernandez said. “It could lessen the achievement gap, and provide true equity in education — if we were funded appropriately, if we were treated as educators and truly respected for what we do.”

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