One early educator explains the importance of transitional kindergarten

December 22, 2021

Preschool students look for signs of spring in a school garden.

Paula Merrigan knows how to make magic in the classroom, sharing her love of learning with young children while also giving them the emotional boost they often need during the pandemic.

She first noticed her affinity for teaching when her own son was in preschool years ago.

“I discovered I really enjoy being around these young children,” she said. “They’re so full of wonder. Their little light bulb moments are so fun to be a part of.”

Paula Merrigan

Now a veteran early childhood educator with 14 years teaching kindergarten and transitional kindergarten, or TK, in the Castro Valley Unified School District, she’s long been a champion of making transitional kindergarten available to more children.

She was also tapped by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be part of the state’s Early Childhood Policy Council, a committee that helped shape the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. 

Currently only available to children who narrowly miss the cutoff for traditional kindergarten, TK is often described as a stepping stone between preschool and kindergarten. 

That’s all set to change next year as the state rolls out its new Universal Transitional Kindergarten program. The $2.7 billion initiative will be gradually phased in over the next five years, until it includes all the state’s 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year.

EdSource recently spoke with Merrigan about the merits of transitional kindergarten on the eve of the program’s expansion. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is transitional kindergarten so important to you? Why do you call it “the gift of time?”

Four years old is too young to be in kindergarten for most children. Today’s kindergarten is not the same kindergarten parents and guardians experienced when they went to school. Today’s kindergarten is really more like first grade. Students have to read, write, learn the numbers by sight and be able to write, add and subtract to 20.

TK is probably what they remember kindergarten to be. We can take our time to learn with play, art, and music. We focus on phonics instruction in TK. Can you imagine being a kindergartner and having the expectation for you to know how to read and write, yet you don’t yet know your letters and sounds? We can learn math concepts with manipulatives. We build on skills. In TK we can focus on those foundational skills, basically creating a solid foundation, so you can learn to walk before you’re asked to run.

Do you think that kindergarten today might be too academically rigorous to be developmentally appropriate for some kids? 

Absolutely, it’s too academic. No 5-year-old should ever feel like a failure. Ever. We have the Common Core State Standards, yet most districts have set standards even higher than is required. Unfortunately, while we’re in a pandemic, local education agencies have not taken this opportunity to rethink the higher standards and adjust to what would be developmentally appropriate standards.

Do you think UTK, giving all 4-year-olds access to transitional kindergarten, will be a game changer for a lot of families?  

Yes. Eventually, it will give every 4-year-old child the advantage that currently only children born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 have. It allows every family the ability to choose what’s best for them. If they love their current private preschool or home day care provider they can stay there. However, so many families can’t afford private programs. If families don’t meet the income requirements — they make a little too much to qualify for a Head Start or the State Preschool Program — their children will most likely go without preschool. Since UTK is part of a free public education, every child will have access to a quality TK program.

What do you think the biggest challenges will be with the UTK rollout?

I think the biggest challenges will be finding an adequate number of classrooms that are the appropriate size with the necessities TK students need, such as a small toilet, a small sink and adequate work and play spaces, recruiting teachers into a profession that already has a shortage of applicants and LEA’s understanding what TK really is. It is not kindergarten. A ratio of 24 children to 2 adults also seems high for young 4-year-olds. We really hope funding will come through for a 20:2 ratio in TK.  

What’s it like being a teacher now?

Teachers are exhausted right now. I think so many of us thought it would be more “normal” when we returned to full-time in-person school this year, but it’s not.  Personally, my daily routine has historically taken my TK students two to three weeks to get down. This year, it took more like seven weeks. Everything seems to take longer this year. Kids seem to be tearier this year.  

Four years old is too young to be in kindergarten for most children. Today’s kindergarten is not the same kindergarten parents and guardians experienced when they went to school.

The effects from the lack of socialization students had since the start of the pandemic, outside of their immediate families, with no day care and no preschool is really showing itself this year. Every grade seems to be impacted, not just TK.  Teaching this year feels like so much more work than in years past. In addition to teaching, we’re nurses checking temperatures and screening for coughs, sneezes, and runny noses, psychologists dealing with social emotional issues, tackling systemic racism and being a parental figure, because they miss their families after being with them 24/7 for the past year and a half. I get called Mom regularly. There are so many other hats we’re wearing this year. All of this on a daily basis.  

If you could wave a magic wand and change something in the lives of teachers, what would it be?

What I’m hearing from teachers all over the state is what overwhelms them the most is the number of ever-growing mandates coming down from their district offices — more work, piled on top of more work, piled on top of professional development they want us to do on our own time. Then teachers are told self-care is important, so take care of yourself. When?

Teachers don’t feel they are being heard by their administrators. That is one of the main things driving teachers out of the profession, maybe even more than the subpar wages given the level of their education and the huge responsibility that comes with the job.

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