To help even the playing field for young children, California is preparing to expand its Transitional Kindergarten (TK) program to include all four-year-olds by fall 2025. At an event last week, PPIC research associate Emmanuel Prunty outlined findings from a new report on access to the current program across diverse student groups, and policy director and senior fellow Laura Hill moderated an expert panel discussion on how to ensure an equitable expansion.
About a quarter of four-year-olds are currently eligible for TK, but there is a great deal of variation in program offerings across the state, said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California. Some districts, like Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, have already been expanding TK ahead of the state’s timeline. Meanwhile, others—particularly smaller, rural districts—are struggling to establish or expand TK.
Some districts are confronting challenges like low student enrollment and workforce shortages. Blending TK with kindergarten classrooms, Head Start, or other programs is one way to leverage different funding streams and make the best use of existing resources, said Stephen Propheter, director of early education at the California Department of Education.
Improving wages could also help address staffing issues. Propheter noted that the state has taken “some pretty big steps” toward increasing reimbursement rates for state-funded programs to help districts improve wages for early childhood educators.
At San Diego Unified, developing a marketing strategy for TK and offering professional development have helped generate excitement and recruit teachers, said Stephanie Ceminsky, director of early learning at the district. Ceminsky also identified several ways that districts with established programs can help other districts, including offering technical assistance and sharing online professional learning resources.
Encouraging families to enroll is another key part of the equation. The state is “all in on full day” and recommends that districts prioritize full-day programs to meet families’ needs, said Propheter. He cited research showing that full-day access dramatically increases participation in public preschool among priority populations, including Black children and children living in low-income neighborhoods.
After substantial TK enrollment declines during the COVID-19 pandemic, attracting families may be an uphill battle. Emphasizing safety and “bringing back confidence to families” is essential to overcome the disruptions of the last two years, said Lozano.
Creating forums for parents to share their children’s TK experiences with other families has been a powerful way to boost enrollment in San Diego, said Ceminsky. As schools and districts move forward with expanding TK, ongoing outreach to parents can help ensure that all children have the chance to benefit from TK and start on a path toward life-long learning.