Despite law change, few districts offer early kindergarten for youngest 4-year-olds

April 9, 2017

Only 6 of California's 25 largest school districts are taking advantage of a state law that allows them to enroll more 4-year-olds in a pre-kindergarten program known as “transitional kindergarten.”

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Only a small number of California’s largest school districts are taking advantage of a state law that allows them to enroll more 4-year-olds in a pre-kindergarten program known as “transitional kindergarten.”

The state’s transitional kindergarten program began in 2012-13, for 4-year-olds who turn 5 in the first few months of the school year.

The state Legislature subsequently gave districts permission to expand transitional kindergarten to even younger 4-year-olds, but with only partial reimbursement from the state. So far only six of the state’s 25 largest school districts offer these programs, known as “expanded transitional kindergarten.”

Notably, the state’s three largest districts – Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified – are among the six districts offering expanded transitional kindergarten. The other three districts are Moreno Valley Unified, Oakland Unified and Riverside Unified.

The kindergarten program has roots in a state law that took effect in the fall of 2012, requiring children to be 5 years old by Sept.1, rather than Dec. 2, to enroll in traditional kindergarten classes. To serve children who had previously been eligible for kindergarten – 4-year-olds who turn 5 from Sept. 2 to Dec. 2 – California added a new public school grade called transitional kindergarten. Those children then attend regular kindergarten the following year.

In 2014, Senate Democrats unsuccessfully pushed to expand transitional kindergarten to accommodate even younger 4-year-olds. The bill, SB 837, was later amended to target children from low-income families. The following year, advocates in Los Angeles Unified called for expanded transitional kindergarten in an effort to offer early learning to more children after a preschool program funded by the district was set to close. The closure of the program would have left thousands of children in the lurch.

In part due to persistent lobbying by L.A. Unified, the Legislature gave school districts permission through the 2015-16 budget trailer bill to enroll 4-year-olds in transitional kindergarten as long as they turned 5 before the end of the school year. This program was called “expanded transitional kindergarten.” However, the catch was that the state started reimbursing districts for the costs of the program – based on students’ average daily attendance – only after children turned 5, not before.

That meant that districts would have to come up with their own funds to cover the costs of every child’s education for “expanded transitional kindergarten” from the beginning of the school year in August or September until the child’s 5th birthday. The goal was to give more 4-year-olds the opportunity to attend transitional kindergarten, not just those who happened to have birthdays from Sept. 2 to Dec. 2.

Districts that are not expanding their programs cite a range of reasons, primarily a lack of state funding to cover the costs of the program and a shortage of classrooms to enroll the extra children.

“We are already tight on space, so that and the financial component would likely be inhibiting factors,” said Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants. Poway Unified officials gave similar reasons. “When you take facilities and staffing into consideration, it would have cost our districts more than what we would get from ADA (average daily attendance funds),” the money districts receive based on student attendance. Greg Bailey, a spokesman for Fremont Unified, also cited a shortage of space. “Our problem is just capacity with classrooms,” he said.

Peter Allen, district spokesman for San Jose Unified, said the district is interested in expanded transitional kindergarten, but “hesitant” to start a program that isn’t fully funded. Echoing the weight of financial concerns was the San Bernardino Unified School District, which has already heavily invested in transitional kindergarten classes. The district spent $3.5 million to hire 33 more teachers to staff their program, said Linda Bardere, a spokeswoman for the district. Bardere said expanding beyond that isn’t an option “because the funding does not start until the child reaches age 5.”

Others cited lack of demand for the program because some parents are reluctant to enroll very young children in kindergarten. “Transitional kindergarten is a great experience for little ones, and definitely helps them prepare for the great kindergarten experience, but for some families, if they can, they like to keep their children home with them as long as possible,” said Mt. Diablo Unified spokeswoman Ursula Leimbach.

“We are already tight on space, so that and the financial component would likely be inhibiting factors,” said Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants.

These limitations did not stop both Los Angeles Unified and Long Beach Unified from offering expanded transitional classes to children who turn 5 as late as June 9 and June 15, respectively, which means they must cover the costs of virtually the entire year out of their existing revenues.

San Diego Unified and Oakland Unified allow students who turn 5 by March 2 to enroll, so these districts also cover most of the costs of the program without any assistance from the state. Riverside Unified enrolls younger students in its transitional kindergarten classes on a case-by-case basis.

At the forefront of expanded transitional kindergarten is Los Angeles Unified, which invested about $14 million the first year it introduced expanded transitional kindergarten and enrolled 2,800 students in 117 programs. This year it has more than doubled the program, to serve 6,700 students at 288 school sites – by far the largest number in the state.

The district selected the schools where it would offer expanded transitional kindergarten using a “student equity index,” which indicates sites with the highest number of low-income, foster youth and English learner students, said Dean Tagawa, the district’s executive director for early education. Los Angeles Unified’s expansion came after it closed the School Readiness and Language Development Program (SRLDP), which at the time served 9,000 students, he said. The preschool program helped to develop students’ language abilities and prepare the 4-year-olds for kindergarten. At the height of enrollment there were 13,968 students in the program, according to the program’s website.

Tagawa said expanded transitional kindergarten is a better option for the district than the school readiness program. One of the shortcomings of the previous preschool program was that it had “no income guidelines,” which meant some families who needed it the most were not able to enroll their children, Tagawa said. Expanded transitional kindergarten is also a full-day program instead of part day, which allows it to accommodate more families.

Oakland Unified began offering expanded transitional kindergarten this year at four sites based on parent interest and the district’s goal to increase enrollment. Long Beach Unified is currently offering expanded transitional kindergarten to 54 students. Next year, the district will expand to four schools in central locations across Long Beach, said Brian Moskovitz, assistant superintendent of elementary schools. Moskovitz said despite “no financial incentive” to expand their program, the district is moving forward because it will “support long-term student academic growth.”

In San Diego Unified, expanded transitional kindergarten classes have been offered at eight schools for the last two years. “The purpose was to provide more students with an academic setting, thus making them better prepared for kindergarten,” district spokeswoman Jennifer Cornelius Rodriguez said.

EdSource staffers Erin Brownfield and Susan Frey also contributed to this report.

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