Declining school enrollment seems to be a fact of life in California’s TK-12 system. However, one of the few bright spots in the picture is kindergarten enrollment, including TK, or transitional kindergarten, which rose more than 5 percent to 496,000 students over the past year. It is now the biggest cohort among all grades.
And yet even there, the numbers fall short of projections. State officials had predicted the average daily attendance of students in TK would be 120,000. But as of the first half of the year, it was only 91,000, according to reports filed at the California Department of Education.
That’s about 24 percent less than projected in TK. It used to serve only children who missed the kindergarten cutoff, but now transitional kindergarten is being gradually expanded to reach all the state’s 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year.
Some blame lingering pandemic fears for keeping families away, as well as strained community engagement and an overall lack of awareness about TK.
Patricia Lozano, executive director of the advocacy group Early Edge California and long a champion of expanding transitional kindergarten, recently spoke to EdSource about TK enrollment and why community engagement may well take some time and patience. Lozano, a former teacher, previously served as a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and worked on its national early learning strategy.
In the 2023–24 school year, California children will be eligible for TK if they turn 5 between Sept. 2 and April 2. In 2024–25, children will be eligible if they turn 5 between Sept. 2 and June 2, according to CDE. By fall 2025, all 4-year-olds will make the cut.
QUESTION: Why is it so significant to expand transitional kindergarten to all 4s?
ANSWER: Expanding TK to serve all 4-year-olds creates a free preschool option for all families. Prior to the expansion of TK, families have either had to meet income requirements to be eligible for preschool programs, such as the California State Preschool Program or Head Start, or pay for private preschool. Once fully implemented, California will have the largest universal preschool program in the nation, serving nearly 400,000 students.
Q: When talking about the need for TK, how important is it to understand how much brain growth happens before age 5?
A: Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops by age 5. What happens in those first five years sets the trajectory for the rest of a child’s life and underscores how critical it is to ensure children have access to high-quality, nurturing early learning experiences that set them up for success.
Q: Do you think it’s too soon to say that transitional kindergarten participation has been tepid?
A: TK is still in the very beginning of implementation. So, it’s early to take the TK enrollment numbers at face value. Also, we need to consider that TK-12 declining enrollment has been happening over the past several years, and that was intensified during COVID.
Q: Do you think some parents are confused because TK used to only apply to fall babies, and now it’s a different cohort?
A: As TK continues its roll out more, parents are becoming aware that it is now a universal program. More communication is definitely needed to help get the word out to parents about TK. While TK has been around for more than a decade now, it may still be a somewhat new concept to parents who had older children who didn’t qualify.
Q: How do parents know if and when their child qualifies? Does it vary by district?
A: TK is being expanded over the next three years to reach full implementation by the 2025-26 school year. Currently, children who turn 5 years old between Sept. 2 and Feb. 2 are eligible for TK. Next year, during the 2023-24 school year, children with birthdays between Sept. 2 and April 2 will be eligible. However, some districts have decided to expedite the implementation process and are already serving all 4-year-old children. Parents and families should reach out to their local school district to learn more about their district’s TK program.
Q: Is the bottom line that schools need to raise awareness of how transitional kindergarten has changed and how it works now?
A: As the program is expanded and implemented, communications efforts in multiple languages will be critical to boosting public awareness of TK to ensure that it becomes seen as a part of TK-12 public education system in the way that kindergarten, first or second grade is currently seen and understood by parents.
Q: Do you think TK can help kids make up for some of what they lost in terms of socialization and intellectual stimulation during the pandemic?
A: Absolutely! At its core, TK is intended to be a play-based program, where children learn through play and interaction with each other. TK will provide children who were infants during the pandemic with social and intellectual engagement while also providing age- and developmentally appropriate structure and routine that we know help young children thrive.
Q: Are there any other key things you wish more parents knew about TK?
A: Parents are not alone! We have a helpful TK-dedicated website, TKcalifornia.org, full of resources tailored for parents on all things TK.