California's $2.7 Billion Plan to Expand Transitional Kindergarten Is Off to an Uneven Start

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children's desks with supplies on them in a classroom
Flordeliza Dalit's transitional kindergarten classroom, ready to welcome students at Jesse G. Sanchez Elementary School in Salinas. The beginning of a three-year, $2.7 billion plan to widen access to pre-kindergarten to 4-year-old children in California is off to an uneven start. Some school districts are seeing dismally low enrollment while others are reporting high demand. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

When Gov. Gavin Newsom held a press conference at a Monterey County elementary school in May 2021, he announced historic funding for a pre-kindergarten grade, hailing his multibillion-dollar proposal as key to California’s pandemic recovery.

Achieving universal access to transitional kindergarten for 4-year-olds, he said, “is so foundational and so important” toward narrowing the so-called readiness gap between kids in lower-income families and those in middle-income families before their traditional schooling begins. Providing a free, high-quality early education program not only benefits youngsters but allows parents to return to the workforce, Newsom said.

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But the beginning of a three-year, $2.7 billion plan to expand transitional kindergarten, or TK, is off to an uneven start. Administrators at some public school districts who had hoped expansion would offset the statewide decline in student enrollment are seeing low turnouts at the start of this school year. Other districts report high demand from parents seeking child care relief.

In Salinas, about 400 students are eligible by age to enter transitional kindergarten, but less than half were enrolled when school began last week. It’s a sharp drop-off from pre-pandemic years, when nearly all children who were qualified for TK showed up, according to Jim Koenig, superintendent of Alisal Union School District.

Meanwhile, the superintendent of the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, estimates that more than 10,000 school-age children weren’t registered for the school year that began Monday. He believes many of them are concentrated in the earliest grades, from transitional kindergarten through first grade.

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“We’re very concerned about that loss of enrollment because we’re not seeing a spike of enrollment in other school settings,” Alberto M. Carvahlo said at a recent news conference, referring to private and charter schools.

Carvahlo said school administrators went into neighborhoods to track the missing students, and found that many of their families moved out of state or shifted to homeschooling. In some cases, older students were staying home to care for their younger siblings.

Participation in TK was rising statewide before COVID-19, but dropped by 23% for the 2020-21 school year. The greatest decline was among Black and Native American children and kids from lower-income families, according to an analysis of enrollment data by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The lingering toll of COVID

In the Salinas Valley, the coronavirus hit the working class hard — and the toll has lingered.

The Alisal Union district serves about 7,500 students, mostly children of immigrants and farmworkers in East Salinas, 70% of whom are English learners. Koenig thinks some of these working parents are still worried about COVID. Salinas, about 85 miles southeast of San Francisco, is the most populous city in Monterey County.

“I think they’re just still concerned about enrolling these very young kids in school and possibly exposing them to the virus,” Koenig said.

The rate of COVID infection among farmworkers in the Salinas Valley was four times higher than in the rest of the local population during the later half of 2020, according to a study that suggested crowded housing as a contributing factor.

a banner hangs on a school fence against a blue sky
A banner hangs on the fence outside Jesse G. Sanchez Elementary School in Salinas, encouraging parents to enroll students. The area is home to many migrant workers who were hit hard by COVID, and some educators think low enrollment is due to fears about exposing kids to the virus. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

Only 5% of children under 4 in Monterey County have gotten the COVID vaccine, though it’s not clear whether that is driving under-enrollment. Nationwide, children are behind on routine immunizations against illnesses such as measles, mumps and pertussis, which are required to attend public school. In California, the COVID vaccine will not be a requirement for students until at least the 2023-24 school year. Many school districts have relaxed masking rules.

School is not mandatory in California until kids turn 6, but years of research have detailed how pre-kindergarten shapes young brains and advances children’s development.

Transitional kindergarten was created in California a decade ago to provide an extra year of schooling for kids who narrowly miss the cutoff to go to kindergarten. Until now, only older 4-year-olds were eligible to participate. Under the expansion plan, districts must gradually add more children, grouping them by their birth months so that by fall 2025, anyone who turns 4 by Sept. 1 can go to TK. As the program increases in size, the student-to-teacher ratio must lower to 10-to-1 by 2025 to ensure students get the attention they need. This year, the ratio is 12-to-1.

Luz Alonso said she looked into enrolling her 4-year-old daughter at a school operated by Alisal Union School District, and asked a school official if there would be enough staff to assist her child with potty training.

“When I asked for support, they just said, ‘Well, she’s just going to have to do it on her own.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s not what I want for her. That’s not right. I mean, they are too little (for TK),’” she said.

Alonso said she decided her child would be better off spending another year in a Head Start program, where class sizes are typically smaller.

Leveling the playing field

Meanwhile, school districts in San Diego and Simi Valley, which went ahead and accepted all 4-year-old children this school year, reported high application rates.

“It shows how much the community needs it,” said Julie Ellis, who helped oversee the TK rollout at the Simi Valley Unified School District. “Pre-K education (was) mostly available through private preschools. And now we have a public institution that’s welcoming these 4-year-olds. It kind of levels the playing field for students to have early access to public education.”

a woman with black hair prepares an elementary school classroom with colorful decorations
Flordeliza Dalit prepares her transitional kindergarten classroom on July 29, 2022, before welcoming students at Jesse G. Sanchez Elementary School in Salinas. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

Koenig said his district tried to get out information about the new program to the parent community by word of mouth and through a bilingual ad campaign on local television. The week before school started, teachers like Flordeliza Dalit held open houses to introduce themselves and their classrooms to new students.

Dalit is teaching the only TK classroom at Sanchez Elementary School in Salinas. Low enrollment led the school district to consolidate a TK classroom at another school with hers. Right before the school year began, she prepared homework folders and care packages stuffed with wooden puzzles, pencils, erasers and candy to welcome her new students.

When some kids stopped coming to her spacious and colorful classroom last year, the 64-year-old teacher called parents to learn why.

“A lot of these parents are migrant workers, so they work really early in the morning and the children had no one to drop them off,” Dalit said.

Because TK will be most of her students’ first exposure to school or an adult who speaks English, she said she tries to make learning fun so children will hopefully want to come back.

She does this by providing a play-based curriculum where students are developing social-emotional, preliteracy and motor skills at their own pace.

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“They don’t even know that they are learning,” Dalit said. “A lot of it is self-exploration and they are learning (by) themselves.”