In a tangible demonstration of their belief in the importance of early education, a few of California’s smaller school districts are offering an extra year of kindergarten to 4-year-olds, and paying for it without any direct support from the state.
They include the 1,253-student Black Oak Mine Unified School District in Gold Country, north of Placerville, and Monterey Peninsula Unified School District with 10,732 students, according to 2016-17 data from the California Department of Education.
Three years ago, the state Legislature voted to underwrite a program called “transitional kindergarten” for 4-year-olds who turn 5 after Sept. 1, the cutoff date for enrolling in regular kindergarten, but before Dec. 3. Those children then enrolled in regular kindergarten the following year.
In 2015, the Legislature updated the law and gave districts permission to expand transitional kindergarten to even younger 4-year-olds – those who turned 5 after Dec. 2.
But the catch is that under the new law, districts can only receive reimbursement from the state after a child turns 5, based on average daily attendance. Before that, districts must find their own funds to underwrite the costs of the program.
As a result, few districts have seized the opportunity to offer what is called “expanded transitional kindergarten” to younger 4-year-olds.
An EdSource survey found that only six of the state’s 25 largest school districts offer “expanded transitional kindergarten.” This includes the state’s largest three districts – Los Angeles Unified (633,621), San Diego Unified (128,040) and Long Beach Unified (76,428). Combined, the three districts enrolled 2,904 students in expanded transitional kindergarten this school year. The majority (2,800 students) come from L.A. Unified – California’s leader in pushing for expanded transitional kindergarten.
But smaller districts have also opened their doors to these 4-year-olds.
In Black Oak Mine Unified School District, a rural district in El Dorado County, Monica Woodall, the district’s Early Education Services coordinator, said the district decided to offer expanded transitional kindergarten because of the urgent need to ensure that students in this isolated rural area are ready for kindergarten.
“We are rural and we (families in the area) have limited options for school, so we decided to do this because we want all our children to be prepared for kindergarten,” Woodall said. “Even though we will not receive funds for those students until they turn 5 from Dec. 3 to March 15, we let them enter (expanded transitional kindergarten) because we feel the need for the option for a high quality program to make sure students are ready for school is so important.”
All four of the district’s transitional kindergarten classes are combination classes, which means that kindergarten, transitional kindergarten and expanded transitional kindergarten students are all in the same class. Ten of the students are in the younger expanded transitional kindergarten age range – which means they turned 5 after Dec. 2.
“It’s not a lot of students, but when you consider we may only have 75 kindergartners, 10 is a high number actually,” she said referring to the number of students in expanded transitional kindergarten classes.
The Santee School District, a district in San Diego County with 6,761 students in 2016-17, has offered parents the option of early admission to kindergarten for more than a decade, said Superintendent Kristin Baranski. Adding an expanded transitional kindergarten has been consistent with that approach, she said, and the district now admits children who turn 5 any time before March 16 into transitional kindergarten classes. The district has five expanded transitional kindergarten classes, with 122 students, Baranski said. The five standard transitional kindergarten classes include 118 students.
This year, the East Whittier City School District, with 8,829 students in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, enrolled about seven children in its expanded transitional kindergarten class, but does so only on a case-by-case basis depending on available space and other factors like a child’s birthday.
The district does not widely advertise the availability of the expanded transitional kindergarten option because of limited space, said Drew Passalacqua, who at the time of an interview with EdSource was director of administrative services for the East Whittier district. He said the district allows some children to enroll, based on the birthday of the child and whether there are available spaces, because of its belief that academic opportunities in the early years will pay off for children in the long term. Passalacqua is currently an administrator in the Upland Unified School District in San Bernardino County.
In the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, children enrolled through the expanded transitional kindergarten window make up almost half of the transitional kindergarten enrollment, serving children with 5th birthdays anytime up to March 1. “We knew it was important to bolster our efforts in early education so we could give more students opportunities that really had an impact,” said Cresta McIntosh, assistant superintendent, elementary education, for the district.
Within a year, the district doubled their transitional kindergarten enrollment and grew from offering expanded transitional kindergarten at seven elementary schools to all 11 in the district, McIntosh said. This year, there are 164 students enrolled through transitional kindergarten and 104 enrolled through expanded transitional kindergarten.
Two years ago, the district received data from Bright Beginnings, an early childhood development initiative, that showed that only 33 percent of its students were prepared for kindergarten, McIntosh said. This led to the district considering the expansion of transitional kindergarten, she said. Through a partnership with First 5 California, an early childhood advocacy organization, the district conducted another assessment and compared a group of children who attended transitional kindergarten with a group who did not.
McIntosh said there were big differences between the groups. For example, students who did not attend transitional kindergarten needed more help with social and emotional readiness, which teaches children how to better regulate their emotions and solve problems, among other things.
“In our district, we found that students who received transitional kindergarten were scoring considerably higher on our local benchmarks,” McIntosh said. The district also “compared local benchmark scores of English language learners and economically disadvantaged students who received transitional kindergarten to those who hadn’t, and again, they scored significantly higher,” she said.
One larger school district offering expanded transitional kindergarten that is not among the state’s 30 largest is Pasadena Unified School District, with a student enrollment of 18,410 in 2016-17. This year, it has two expanded transitional classes, offered to families on a first-come, first-served basis, said Julianne Reynoso, assistant superintendent of elementary education.
Children who will have 5th birthdays by March 31 are eligible to enroll, she said. This year, those classes filled up in two days, Reynoso said.
“There is high demand,” she said. This year, some 47 students will be in two stand-alone classes. Still, Reynoso said the district is limiting further expansion of its early kindergarten programs for younger 4-year-olds because of the budgetary impact of the state only providing funding after a child turns 5.