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Universal Preschool's Off to a Bumpy Start, but East San José Is Seeing Success. Here's Why

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Three kids sit on the floor as they listen to their classroom teacher.
From left, Ariel Estrada, Camila Corona and Ayanna Hernandez listen to their teacher, Sandra Rivera, during playtime in a transitional kindergarten class at Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center in East San José on Feb. 17, 2023. This year, thousands of children began their schooling as part of California's ambitious plan to expand universal preschool statewide. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Jaime Pacheco, 5, has spent half of his life in a pandemic.

He was still learning to talk when the lockdown began. That was also when his mom gave birth to his sister. COVID-19 hit his working-class and immigrant community in East San José hard, and his family stayed at home to protect the baby and everyone else from getting sick. When they did go on an outing, his mom, Itzia Morfin, said she kept her kids far away from people.

So when he stepped into a classroom for the first time last fall, Jaime had a hard time pronouncing words and expressing his feelings, and threw a tantrum unlike any Morfin had seen before.

A Latina woman in a pink sweater poses with her two young children outside of a school gate.
Itzia Morfin poses with her daughter and son in front of the Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center in East San José on Feb. 10, 2023. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

“It was all new to him. He didn’t know how to act around other kids, around the teacher,” she said.

Jaime is among tens of thousands of children who began their schooling this year when California made transitional kindergarten, or TK, more available as part of an ambitious plan to create the nation’s largest universal preschool program in the next three years.

Transitional kindergarten is intended to better prepare 4- to 5-year-olds for kindergarten. The new grade is not mandatory, but gives parents the option of getting their children into schools sooner, which can help reduce child care costs that have become increasingly unaffordable and unavailable.

But this first year of implementing the expansion has been bumpy. Some school districts didn’t meet enrollment expectations, and some saw a jump in enrollment, although that meant taking away kids that were in preschools and destabilizing child care businesses.

A school sign by a neighborhood street.
Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center in East San José on Feb. 17, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

One of the biggest challenges has been staffing. The majority of districts reported they didn’t have enough qualified teachers or child care staff to cover beyond the half day of classroom time.

Last month Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed to increase spending on the $3 billion initiative, despite a projected $24 billion deficit for the 2023–24 budget year, so that the state can continue ramping up the program.

“We’re not by any stretch of the imagination where we need to be, but we’re not backing off in terms of accelerating these priorities in terms of our efforts to transform our public education system,” Newsom said when he unveiled his budget plan in January.

The state is giving school districts time to fully implement the program by phasing in younger students each year. Currently, students who turn 5 between September and February 2 are eligible for transitional kindergarten. Next fall, tens of thousands of children who turn 5 between September and April 2 will be qualified to attend class.

Two girls play with blocks on a carpet in a classroom.
Camila Rico laughs as she grabs an armful of blocks during playtime in a transitional kindergarten class at Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center in East San José on Feb. 17, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

By the 2025–26 school year, all children who turn 4 by September 1 can sign up for TK.

While the California Department of Education hasn’t released this school year’s attendance data for TK, it appears enrollment didn’t grow as much as the state anticipated. Newsom’s budget proposal lowered spending estimates for the first year of the expansion, and the governor taped a video last month to encourage families to enroll age-eligible kids and “start their schooling on the right track.”

Newsom also postponed plans to reduce class size from 12 students for every teacher to 10 students per teacher, and held back funding to renovate or build the appropriate facilities for TK-age children.

But one Bay Area school district is having more success. Over the last two years, TK enrollment in East San José went up from 262 to 324.

That’s because the Alum Rock Union School District has been gradually growing its TK program since 2015. It skipped ahead of the state’s expansion schedule by phasing in 4-year-olds earlier; it’s keeping classroom size small, at just 20 kids per two adults in the room so the students get the attention they need; and it’s offering after-school care to meet the needs of working parents.

The district also partnered with Kidango, a nonprofit child care provider, to convert an elementary school into an early learning center where babies up to kindergarten-age kids will receive a full day of care — all on one campus.

An older Latina woman stands in a school hallway looking off camera.
Dianna J. Ballesteros, director of early learning for Alum Rock Union School District, stands for a portrait at Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center in East San José, on Feb. 17, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

“The idea of repurposing this facility came from listening to people in the community who said ‘we need something that is local, something where we don’t have to go driving far away,’” said Dianna Ballesteros, director of early learning for Alum Rock Union.

Declining elementary school enrollment prompted district officials to move older students to other campuses while the TK and kindergarten students stayed put, she said.

Now those empty classrooms are turning into a day care: Desks, chairs and whiteboards are being replaced with short sinks, tables and cubbies for smaller kids and cribs and diaper-changing tables to welcome infants and toddlers by the next school year.

The center also includes an office where children can get assessed for developmental delays. SOMOS Mayfair, a community organization that offers referrals for public assistance programs, also has an office on-site.

“I think it’s a great model and we should see how it works and maybe learn from it,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of the advocacy group Early Edge California.

Because children from lower-income families tend to fall behind their better-off peers starting in kindergarten, Lozano argues it’s crucial to provide a consistent learning environment early on.

“During these early years, all these connections are happening in the brain, and the more opportunities we give kids to socialize, to play with other kids … you know, we’re kind of building the infrastructure for future learning,” she said.

Alum Rock Union’s learning center is named after Cesar Chavez, who once lived close by while laboring in the fruit orchards. East San José, which is home to immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam and India, among others, had some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Santa Clara County, and the lingering effects of the pandemic are still felt in the classroom.

Jaime’s teacher at Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center, Sandra Rivera, said she’s noticed a change over the last two school years. Transitional kindergarten students show up not knowing how to share or take turns.

A Latina woman sits around a tables with kids, helping one hold a pencil.
Transitional kindergarten teacher Sandra Rivera helps one of her students trace numbers inside a heart at Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center in East San José on Feb. 17, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

“When they’re playing, their conflict resolution isn’t like it used to be because kids aren’t going to the park, kids aren’t seeing other kids in social settings, and so it takes time at the beginning of the year to get those routines and procedures into place so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom environment,” she said.

Rivera sees the education system setting higher academic expectations for kindergarten, and transitional kindergarten as giving children an extra year to get ready. In her classroom, Rivera introduces the letters of the alphabet and math concepts through singing and rhyming, and building with magnetic tiles and blocks, to foster a love of learning.

Rivera says she also combines activities, such as cooking projects, with the kindergarten class next door so her students can get a preview of what to expect when they move up to kindergarten.

“A lot of that exploration and play is prevalent here,” she said.

The program is already making a difference for Jaime.

A young boy with a face mask looks at the camera in a classroom with other kids playing behind him.
Jaime Pacheco stands in his transitional kindergarten class at Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center in East San José on Feb. 17, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

One recent morning, he sat on a rug with a group of classmates, playing a counting game that involved taking turns to guess the missing number in a sequence of 10.

Two kids had stuck heart-shaped cards, each with a number on it — 10, 20, 30 — in numerical order on the board. When it was Jaime’s turn, he chose the number 40 from a pile of cards and placed it on the board. Next, he randomly picked a popsicle stick with the name of the next classmate to go to the board. He was able to recognize the letters of her name and called out “Kenya.”

Through the center, Jaime was matched with a speech therapist to help him catch up to his peers. Now, his mom said he’s making friends and picking up new skills.

“He knows what a routine is, he knows to put away his stuff … he makes me so proud of him when I see him doing the alphabet and signing,” Morfin said. “I just feel so happy, his teacher has been helping him.”

Seeing the benefits of TK with Jaime, Morfin said she’s now eager for her daughter to start preschool earlier.

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