Los Angeles Unified is expecting roughly 5,000 additional students next school year as it grows its transitional kindergarten program to include more 4-year-olds in the first of several planned expansions to the eligibility window as part of its stronger focus on early education.
Unanimously approved by the school board in April 2021, LAUSD is on track to provide schooling for all 4-year-olds regardless of family income by 2024 as it expands TK and early transitional kindergarten, known as ETK and currently meant for income-eligible 4-year-olds whose birthdays fall into the six months following the TK eligibility window. The district is on a slightly accelerated track compared with the timeline set out by the California Department of Education, which plans to hit the same goal statewide by the 2025-26 school year.
Students who will turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Feb. 2 will be eligible to enroll in TK as the district expands the program to students who are two months younger. There are currently 6,220 students enrolled in TK, up from last year but still below pre-pandemic numbers, according to district data. With the new growth will also come a 1:12 staffing ratio and updates to the curriculum. As TK shifts, so will ETK.
LAUSD officials see this expansion as a way to narrow the achievement gap among students who do not have access to as many resources — an issue that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. They also see it as a way to improve enrollment, which continues to decline sharply. By creating a stronger pathway from early education through high school within the district, LAUSD, along with the state, aims to better lay an early academic foundation and ensure a smooth flow in educational progression, said Dean Tagawa, executive director of early education.
“We’re ready to take the kids in,” Tagawa said. “We have highly qualified staff. We’re creating fun learning environments for them.”
Teachers say they’re still waiting to hear what will come in terms of changes to curriculum and resources as they look toward next year and are hesitantly optimistic about the expansion of transitional kindergarten. There’s some satisfaction that so much attention has turned toward TK recently, but also some uncertainty as to what the structure will look like.
For Amy Weisberg, who teaches transitional kindergarten at Topanga Elementary Charter School and is a part of the district’s TK cadre, that means ensuring LAUSD provides space and supplies for dramatic play, more guidance for parents and more standardized teaching materials for teachers.
“I’m hoping that there will be some materials that are developed or available for TK specifically that aren’t just watered-down kindergarten, or a little enhanced preschool,” she said. “I hope it’s very specific to the age of 4-year-olds as we get to the end of the rollout.”
Tagawa said LAUSD is focused on aligning its early education through third grade programs and that teachers and families should expect a focus on the whole child, which means looking at how the students are getting along with their peers and building on social skills as they prepare for kindergarten. He said the district also aims to continue to build a foundation for cognition, oral language development and concept development.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for adults to interact with kids, and there’s a lot of opportunities for kids to expand language,” he said, explaining the importance of conversing through questions.
LAUSD also plans to grow its dual-language early education programs with the influx of new students. There are currently 39 classes but Tagawa hopes that number of classes will grow by 10 or 20 next year as more programs are added to schools that are able to feed students to other schools that support dual-language learning as they continue on their academic journeys.
Gloria Craine is hesitant yet hopeful some of the program’s early goals and support might return as she remembers when transitional kindergarten was first introduced at Los Angeles Unified more than a decade ago. She had an aide in her Ellen Ochoa Learning Center classroom in Cudahy five hours a day and focused on emphasizing play and kinesthetic activities among the roughly 23 4-year-olds she taught. By her seventh — and last — year of teaching TK she had a two-hour aide for 27 students and had seen a shifting desire for a more academic focus.
“I think what the program is now and what it was when it started are two different things,” she said. Craine is now a second grade teacher at the same school and has watched combination classes take over the TK classes she once taught, resulting in a more kindergarten-oriented structure.
Like Craine, Stephanie Levinson, who teaches a TK/kindergarten combination class at San Fernando Elementary School, agrees that part of reaching age-appropriate balance is giving TK space to grow on its own. Joint TK and kindergarten classes currently account for nearly 70% of TK classes offered across LAUSD. Kindergarten has a greater focus on assessment and specific curriculum in comparison with TK classes, which involve much more focus on play, making finding the middle ground a bit difficult, Levinson said.
Levinson said she only remembers one year when transitional kindergarten was taught as its own class. She said combining the two grade levels means TK children are essentially put into a kindergarten curriculum.
“Every year it’s been, ‘Here’s the program, but we’re going to teach you at the kindergarten level,’” Levinson said. “It’s always been an afterthought, like, ‘Oh, kindergarten does this, and TK, you guys can do this but you guys figure it out on your own.”
Though Tagawa said the expansion of the program and influx of students will lower the number of combination classes beginning next year, he is not yet sure by how much.
Lourdes Andrade, who teaches early transitional kindergarten at 186th Street Elementary School in Gardena, shares similar worries about finding that age-appropriate balance as TK eligibility continues to shift to include the younger students who previously would’ve fallen under the ETK range. ETK currently encompasses students who turn 5 between Dec. 3 and June 30 but will have shifted to cover April 3 through Sept. 1 by 2023-24 as TK continues to expand.
As a result, she wonders what ETK will look like over the next several years and how it will work in conjunction with TK as it grows. Andrade pointed to handwriting as an example, noting that working on penmanship can sometimes be frustrating for younger students whose hand muscles are still developing.
“There is a big difference between TK and ETK,” Andrade said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s just a couple of months difference between the students, but there’s a lot of difference between what students can do from month to month.”
Tagawa said that TK is only part of the overall goal of universal preschool and will work in conjunction with ETK, state preschool and other programs that make up early education both in the district and in the community.
District board member Nick Melvoin called this expansion of transitional kindergarten a huge step for the district as it both aims to grow and provide more resources to the families it serves.
“Once you start in preschool or TK with a group of families and with the kid, there’s really an inertia to stay because now you’ve gotten to know those other families and go to school,” Melvoin said. “And so, I do think that once a lot of these families have come in for TK, we’ll capture that in a moment throughout elementary school.”
As Tagawa looks toward the next school year, he said the district is working on launching its enrollment campaign to ensure parents are aware of the program. The district will also work on providing professional development for teachers that ensures they have a good understanding of the California Preschool Learning Foundations, which provide curriculum guidance for teachers.
The district has just over 900 teachers who meet the qualifications to teach TK, and Tagawa estimates the district will bring in another 20 to 25 teachers over the next few years depending on what enrollment looks like. To teach TK, teachers must be credentialed and complete 24 early-education units or obtain a child development permit by August 2023 if they do not have sufficient classroom experience, which is based on a standard set by each individual district.
LAUSD is also conducting a site survey that will run through next year and give the district an idea of how many classrooms are available and how many rooms need upgrading to serve the young students.
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