Local control and parental prerogative, two hallmarks of the state’s new transitional kindergarten program, led to large variations in enrollment rates across the largest school districts in the state during the first year the program was available, according to an EdSource survey.
Transitional kindergarten was offered for the first time in nearly every school district during the 2012-13 school year. More than 39,000 students enrolled in transitional kindergarten statewide, according to the first in a series of reports on the new grade level published by the American Institutes of Research (AIR).
Until the past school year, any child in California who turned 5 by December 2 was eligible to attend kindergarten that school school year. Now, based on their birthdays, some of the youngest of those children are no longer eligible for regular kindergarten, but have the option of attending a new grade level called transitional kindergarten and then regular kindergarten the following year. During the 2012-13 school year, districts were required to offer the program for the first time to children who turned five between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2
It is difficult to know how best to assess the success of the new program, but one measure is the fraction of a district’s traditional kindergarten population that enrolled in transitional kindergarten. State officials estimated that this fraction, based on children just with November birthdays, would be about 1/12, or 8 percent, of a district’s traditional kindergarten population. However, the 27 largest school districts with kindergarten programs that responded to an EdSource survey last spring reported variances in the number of students enrolled in the new program.
In San Francisco Unified, Lodi Unified, Chino Valley Unified, Sacramento City Unified, San Juan Unified, Montebello Unified, Elk Grove Unified and Temecula Valley Unified, only 3 to 4 percent of kindergarten students enrolled in transitional kindergarten – less than half the expected enrollment. At the same time, San Jose Unified, Poway Unified and Orange Unified had 11 to 15 percent of their typical kindergarten population enrolled in transitional kindergarten.
Districts were given flexibility in how they implemented the program. Schools could offer a stand-alone class or offer transitional kindergarten in combination with a kindergarten class. The number of schools that offered the program was left to the district, as was the age range of students invited to participate. For example, some districts chose to offer the program to children with birthdays between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, the age range they will ultimately be required by law to serve. The result, at least in part, was a notable variation, from 3 percent to 15 percent, of a district’s traditional kindergarten population that enrolled in transitional kindergarten.
There could be many reasons for the low enrollment numbers in some districts, said Heather Quick, director of AIR’s transitional kindergarten research. Families are able to opt their transitional kindergarten-eligible child out of the program and either enroll him in kindergarten or keep him at home.
The location of the offered classes also seemed to matter. Since such a small number of students were eligible for transitional kindergarten, many school districts chose to offer the program at only a few schools in the district in what is known as a “hub approach.” Nearly three quarters of the districts surveyed chose this method according to the information provided to EdSource.
Quick said that in some cases researchers on her project heard from parents who were reluctant to send their child to a transitional kindergarten class hosted at a school in a lower-income neighborhood than their own.
That was the case in San Francisco Unified, said district spokesperson Gentle Blythe. Stand-alone transitional kindergarten classes were offered at two schools in the city, one in a low-income neighborhood and one in an affluent neighborhood, Blythe said. “The (programs in the) affluent part of town (were) fully enrolled. In the part of town where families are very low-income, there were still spaces available,” she said.
San Francisco also offers its own universal preschool program for 4-year-olds living in the county, funded by a 2004 voter initiative. The program is open to all students and parents pay on an income-based sliding scale. Children who qualify for transitional kindergarten also qualified for this program, Blythe said, and many parents chose to keep their children in the low-cost preschool setting for another year. San Francisco also offered classes at three of their early education centers, serving preschool and transitional kindergarten children in the same classroom.
Quick also cited differences in districts’ outreach to eligible families and the varying willingness of different families to sign up for transitional kindergarten as possible factors in individual district enrollment rates. Many districts delayed doing outreach while the fate of the program was debated over a period of several months in the state Legislature. And districts like Long Beach that have offered the program for several years have found that lower-income families are more likely to voice concerns that transitional kindergarten could serve as a way to hold their child back rather than as a way to better prepare them for regular kindergarten.
In Orange Unified, located outside Los Angeles, 15 percent of the district’s kindergarten population enrolled in transitional kindergarten, significantly more than expected. Anne Truex, the executive director of elementary education for the district, said one explanation for this high rate could be that the practice of “redshirting,” or delaying sending a child to kindergarten for a year so that they are more developmentally advanced when they go to school, was already common in Orange. She guessed that many parents who might otherwise have” redshirted” their children ended up sending them to transitional kindergarten instead.
To help parents make the best decision for their children, Orange Unified offered kindergarten readiness assessments to all incoming kindergartners, including those eligible for transitional kindergarten. This is not a new practice, Truex said, but it was better advertised this year and more parents took advantage of it.
“(Test administrators) would go over the results and explain where children really were mastering skills and if they needed improvement on skills,” Truex said. The hope was that parents could then make a more informed decision about the best option for their child.
Orange Unified also offered the program to children with fifth birthdays between July 1 and Dec. 1, a much broader range than required by law.
Next year, districts will be required to offer transitional kindergarten to children with fifth birthdays in October or November, and not just in November as was the case this past year. This change is expected to double the transitional kindergarten population. In places with low enrollment rates this year, the increases may be steep as districts add classrooms at additional schools and as families become more familiar with the option of choosing transitional kindergarten for their children.
The next step will be to follow the children who did attend transitional kindergarten this year and see how, or if, it affects their performance in school as they go forward, as advocates and lawmakers who supported the new program hope.
Truex, the official from Orange, said her district received positive feedback from parents about the program, which she thinks has been good for children too. “I’m excited for next year,” she said, “to have those kids go into kindergarten and see how they excel.”
Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.
Transitional Kindergarten Enrollment 2012/13
|District||TK Students 2012/13||K Enrollment 2011/12||% K in TK|
|San Bernardino City||250||4,530||6%|
Disclaimer: Total number of Kindergarten students for the 2012/13 school year unavailable. Number of Transitional Kindergarten students self-reported from school districts in Spring 2013.