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School districts prepare for universal expansion of transitional kindergarten

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In this file photo, Almondale Elementary transitional kindergarten teacher Teresa Echeverria asks her students to participate in an estimate skills quiz.

Right now only a slim fraction of 4-year-old Californians qualify for transitional kindergarten. The most recent state budget changes that with a 5-year plan to expand the extra year of kindergarten to all 4-year-olds in the state. 

Currently, transitional kindergarten, often referred to as TK, is available to students who turn will turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 of the upcoming school year. The latest budget will phase in younger students each year until the year 2025-26, when all 4-year-olds will be eligible for the program.

"Expanding TK will make a huge impact over the next several years," wrote Ty Bryson, the superintendent of Lakeside Union School District. "The commitment in this budget to provide access and quality in early childhood education is going to be a game changer for elementary school districts, large and small."

The expansion begins in 2022-23, and each year students two months younger will be phased in. In 2025-26, all 4-year-old students will be eligible.

This year the state has earmarked $200 million for planning and implementation grants and $100 million to train and increase the number of early childhood educators.

"There's a lot that districts have to prepare and plan for," John Mendiburu, associate superintendent at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

The expansion of the program will bring in many more students on campus. Patricia Lozano, the executive director of Early Edge California, estimated that there are about 250,000 students in TK, California State Preschool, Head Start and other state programs. She estimated that those numbers could grow to 400,000 in 2025-26.

One of the biggest challenges will be simply finding space for students on campus. School districts will be able to apply for state grants dedicated to facilities, Lozano said.

Sherry Gladin, the assistant superintendent of business services for Bakersfield City School District, said the district is reviewing the details of the program. The district has to think about expanding without encroaching on the playground space dedicated to younger students. Gladin said that how much space the district needs will be heavily dependent on adult-to-children ratios.

The budget calls for reducing the ratio from 1:24 to 1:12. It also calls for eventually reducing it to 1:10.

Lozano said the goal of this ratio is to bring an extra adult in the classroom, typically an aide. Early Edge California pushed for a lower ratio to help teachers who are struggling in large classrooms. Younger students have shorter attention spans, need more attention and benefit from more adults, she said. Another aide can help a credentialed teacher run small group instruction, for instance.

"The lower teacher-to-student ratios will allow for the personalized attention required for teachers to individualize instruction for these younger students," Bryson added.

The push for universal transitional kindergarten is also coming at a time when teachers have been tough to find in California generally and Kern County specifically. There is money earmarked for finding early childhood educators as well as other K-12 teachers, but Gladin said districts are awaiting more details about what that will look like.

"We are in a teacher shortage," said Gladin. "Where do we find the teachers from?"

The state's budget plans on expanding money for these 4-year-olds over the next five years. Next year it will grow to $600 million, and by 2025-26, it will grow to $2.7 billion. 

As a part of this new plan, school districts will also be able to count these newly-eligible students in their average daily attendance numbers, which are used to determine their funding from the state. 

Right now is a year for districts to begin to figure out details on their own campuses, but also to educate parents about what is coming, Gladin said.

For many students, transitional kindergarten is an important opportunity they have to get high-quality education in their neighborhood, Lozano said. Expanding early education will help reduce the achievement gap.

"Parents rely on transitional kindergarten to get students in for that extra year of a boost before they start kindergarten," said Mendiburu.

This story has been updated to reflect that there are an estimated 250,000 students in TK, California State Preschool, Head Start and other state programs.

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