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How Much Play? How Much Money? As California Moves Toward Universal Pre-K, Parents Weigh Options

Two young boys, one with a blue hat and the other in a blue and gray sweatshirt push yellow school bus toys on the carpet.
Altadena Nursery School offers a play-based program for kids ages 2 to 5 years old.
(Mariana Dale
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After spending the first year of the pandemic at home with her daughter, Altadena mom Mayka Mei was ready to go back to work.

How Much Play? How Much Money? As California Moves Toward Universal Pre-K, Parents Weigh Options

Mei and her husband cobbled together a functioning schedule with the help of two separate part-time child care programs at the cost of $1,200 a month.

“It's only been able to work because of work-from-home flexibility,” Mei said.

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She points to her daughter’s recent self-haircut as an example of the perils of simultaneously coordinating marketing and publicity for an animation studio while watching a 4-year-old.

Now Mei, and other California parents have a new, free preschool option to consider.

Starting in August, public schools will have to offer transitional kindergarten, or TK, to students who turn 5 between September 2 and February 2. By the time school starts in 2025, every 4-year-old in the state will have a spot in TK if they want it.

As parents decide which program meets their needs, existing child care providers and early educators are trying to figure out how to adapt with fewer 4-year-olds enrolling.

‘Play Is An Opportunity To Learn’

On a recent weekday morning at Altadena Nursery School, a parent set up shaving cream and black ink in the art room so the kids could create a swirling marbled pattern on paper.

When I walked in about an hour later, the kids' arms were covered in gray foam up to the elbows in an activity they dubbed “shaving cream gloves.”

“I'm happy to show them an example of what we do, but if they take it in another direction, that's what we want them to do,” said Interim Director Stefanie Zieger.

A girl in a pink shirt with multi-color clouds holds up her arms, which are covered in a mixture of shaving cream and ink up to the elbows.
A student at Altadena Nursery School shows off her "shaving cream gloves."
(Mariana Dale / LAist)
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What is transitional kindergarten (TK)?
  • In 2010, state lawmakers passed The Kindergarten Readiness Act, which changed the age cutoff for kindergarten. It required districts to offer a new program— transitional kindergarten— to kids who would be excluded from kindergarten because of the change, those with 5th birthdays between September and December of the current school year.

  • The law defined transitional kindergarten as "the first year of a two-year kindergarten program that uses a modified kindergarten curriculum that is age and developmentally appropriate." Every district implements TK a little differently, so you'll get the most useful information by asking them for more details about the program.

  • The California Department of Education considers pre-K as an umbrella term — transitional kindergarten is pre-K, but not everything that could be considered pre-K is transitional kindergarten. (Programs like Head Start, for example.)

The kids spend half the day choosing their own activities. On the day I visit, the options include digging for dinosaur bones beneath the playground sand and papercrafts.

“Play is an opportunity to learn,” said fellow Interim Director Jill Jones.

There are few concrete rules at the school aside from those that protect the safety of the 40-or-so kids in the building.

Mayka Mei said after the pandemic lockdown, she’s watched her daughter’s social skills blossom here.

“If she meets somebody and spends some good time with them, they immediately become her best friend,” Mei said.

The school is a co-op where parents volunteer in the classroom weekly and pitch in to help run the school. For many, the opportunity to learn more about their kids and parenting from the teachers is part of the program’s appeal. It’s also a significant time commitment for working families.

Last fall, Mei heard the Pasadena Unified School District would add a dual-language Mandarin immersion TK program at Field Elementary as part of its transitional kindergarten expansion.

“That was a game-changer for me,” Mei, who describes herself as ethnically Chinese, but not a confident Mandarin speaker.

Her daughter could learn the language and Field Elementary’s 6.5-hour school day could add some consistency to the family’s schedule.

California lawmakers created transitional kindergarten in 2010 and required districts to offer the program to kids with 5th birthdays between September and December of the current school year.

Enrollment Changes
  • Pasadena Unified School District
    2016-17: 17,065
    2021-22: 15,313 (-10.3%)

  • Los Angeles Unified School District
    2017-18: 478,916
    2021-22: 419,443 (-12.5%)

  • Long Beach Unified School District
    2017-18: 76,187
    2021-22: 69,413 (-8.9%)

  • Glendale Unified School District
    2017-18: 26,075
    2021-22: 24,213 (-7.2%)

  • Pomona Unified School District
    2017-18: 23,776
    2021-22: 21,454 (-9.8%)

  • Downey Unified School District
    2017-18: 22,303
    2021-22: 22,216 (-.4%)

  • Torrance Unified School District
    2017-18: 23,696
    2021-22: 22,490 (-5.1%)

  • All L.A. County public school districts
    2017-18: 1,303,521
    2021-22: 1,176,166 (-9.8%)

  • Data: California Department of Education. Counts exclude students enrolled in charter schools.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed opening the program to every 4-year-old in the state last year and the most recent budget proposal includes more than $600 million to help make it happen. Creating a free public preschool program for California’s 3- and 4-year-olds is part of an ambitious master plan for early learning and care.

Though recent studies have raised questions about the long-term learning benefits of public preschool programs, the expansion is a potential boon for public schools.

Pasadena, like other school districts, has seen enrollment decline in recent years. There are almost 13% fewer students attending now than five years ago, according to the California Department of Education.

The expansion of transitional kindergarten offers districts an opportunity to attract, and get funding, to teach younger students like Mei’s daughter.

“When you're coming to early childhood programs, here, you're going to be part of the arts program, you're going to be part of the dual immersion program, things that maybe standalone programs don't have,” said Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth Blanco.

Several preschool-aged children and their teacher bow in front of red curtains.
Teacher Fiona Tse said one goal for the year is for the preschoolers at Field Elementary to learn how to interact with their peers and adults in the classroom.
(Mariana Dale/ LAist)

At Field Elementary, preparations for the newest students on campus are well underway.

The curriculum is ordered, the teachers are hired, and the school is working on the small, but important details, like where and how the 4-year-olds will get dropped off in the mornings and picked up in the afternoons.

Principal Charlene Tucker said the TK lessons will combine elements in the school’s existing preschool and kindergarten programs.

“Throughout the school day, we really emphasize singing and song and poetry,” Tucker said. “What may appear to be play is actually instruction that's going on.”

The transitional kindergarten class will be taught 90% in Mandarin and 10% in English.

Preschool teacher Fiona Tse said even students who came into her classroom at the beginning of the year with little understanding of the language can now follow her instructions without translation.

“To see the progress that they make for the entire school year, that just brightens my day,” Tse said. “That just motivates me to keep working with this age group.”

Will Expanding TK Have Unintended Consequences?

Some argue that expanding transitional kindergarten without supporting other types of child care could have unintended consequences from reducing the availability of care for younger kids to shuttering businesses run by women of color for years.

“When 4-year-olds have other options that are free in the public schools, and take advantage of them… it becomes even harder for child care providers who are already operating on narrow margins to make their balance sheet work,” said Elliot Regenstein, a partner at Foresight Law and Policy who’s examined education policy in California.

Some child care centers offset the high cost of caring for infants and toddlers by enrolling older children and rely on payments from the state to care for kids through subsidized programs for low-income families.

People make choices to what's right for their family... We're very supportive of that, even the families who leave.
— Stefanie Zieger, interim co-director, Altadena Nursery School

Because the state does not have a universal option for its youngest children, “if more and more 4-year-olds are going to be in TK, it's going to put pressure on the state to ramp up its subsidies for the rest of the child care system to keep that viable,” Regenstein said.

California child care advocates say that despite a record surplus, this year’s proposed state budget doesn’t invest enoughin early learning and care.

How Will Preschools Adapt To Universal TK?

Not every family will be lured away by transitional kindergarten.

Darinka Whitmore’s twin sons are in their final year at Altadena Nursery School, following in the footsteps of their two older brothers. She considered transitional kindergarten for her oldest son, but ultimately opted for another year at the co-op.

“He's very hands on learning and at school, it's more like, you know, ‘Sit down,’ and it just didn't work for him,” Whitmore said.

A child at Altadena Nursery School brushes dust from a cow bone unearthed from the playground.
The so-called dinosaur bones unearthed from the Altadena Nursery School playground are actually livestock skeletons donated by a former teacher who grew up on a ranch.
(Mariana Dale / LAist)

Her son started at a public school in kindergarten and Whitmore said he’s thriving.

“He knew all his numbers, and he knew how to write his name,” Whitmore said. “He knew a lot of things that I think they would have learned at TK, but he learned it here, just playing.”

But overall, Interim Director Stefanie Zieger noticed fewer 4-year-olds signing up as nearby schools opened transitional kindergarten programs.

“People make choices to what's right for their family,” Zieger said. “We're very supportive of that, even the families who leave.”

Staff and parents are trying to figure out how the more-than-70-year-old school can adapt to families’ needs and stay financially afloat.

“I don't want to show my hand, because we haven't really fleshed it all out,” Zieger said.

While Mayka Mei’s daughter likely won’t be returning to the school next year, she’s struggled to make a final decision on a transitional kindergarten program.

“Am I choosing academics over play-based now just because of practicality?” Mei wonders. She’s set a personal deadline to decide by the time the family returns from vacation in August.

The addition of transitional kindergarten doesn’t solve the problem that finding early learning and care in California — like many states— is challenging without a singular, comprehensive, reliable source for information.

“The fact that there are options out there in a landscape is useful,” Regenstein said, “but if parents don't really know what they are or can't really access them, then that's not true choice.”

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.