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California Teacher Shortage Hinders Transitional Kindergarten and Bilingual Education Goals

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A teacher sits at a classroom table with young students as one student puts his arm tenderly around her neck
Teacher Cintya Valdivia sits with transitional kindergarten students during snack time at the International Community School in Oakland on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California is in the middle of an ambitious plan to offer transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds by the 2025–26 school year in what’s poised to be the largest free preschool program in the country. KQED and LAist are teaming up on a series examining the challenges the state faces as it tries to add a new grade to its sprawling public school system.


or students in the transitional kindergarten classroom at Oakland’s International Community Elementary School, the day is split in half. They spend their mornings speaking and learning Spanish from teacher Cintya Valdivia. After lunch, they learn everything in English from teacher Sophie Siebert.

When the school year began, the 4- and 5-year-olds dreaded switching to English, Seibert said. The school is in Fruitvale, home to the city’s largest Latin American immigrant community, and with many students speaking Spanish or a Mayan language called Mam at home, they were not yet comfortable with English.

But by the end of the year, assessments showed that the students were picking up a lot of English, Seibert said.


One student she called her “favorite, rebellious Venezuelan kid” often avoided talking to her by saying, “I can’t speak English, Miss.” He wound up passing his assessments with flying colors, she said.

“I just looked at him like, ‘OK, you can’t understand me? You did pretty well, bilingual genius,’” Seibert said. “And so, it’s really cool to see their confidence grow in another language.”

A teacher smiles as she plays with students at an outdoor play gym slide
Teacher Sophie Seiberth speaks with transitional kindergarten students during recess at the International Community School in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Meanwhile, Valdivia said the Spanish-speaking students’ vocabulary grew in their native language, and their sentence structures became more complex.

Valdivia and Siebert’s classroom is a model of California’s effort to boost bilingual education while it also works to make transitional kindergarten available to all 4-year-olds by next fall. School districts are offering TK classes in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and other languages that reflect the linguistic diversity of their community and to seize upon the window when young learners are most open to language development.

They have a lot of catching up to do: California is behind other states when it comes to investing in bilingual education and enrolling English learners in dual-language immersion programs, experts said, and the state may not have enough teachers to reach its big goals.

A young student stands and raises her hand in class as other students around her remain seated in a classroom
Students raise their hands in a bilingual transitional kindergarten class at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“There are enormous numbers of dual language learners in California, and taking advantage of those children’s languages and helping them develop them fully is going to be a really big lift,” said Conor Williams, a researcher at The Century Foundation who examined the state’s bilingual education policies. “Could the state do more? Absolutely.”

In California, nearly 60% of children under the age of 6 live in homes where a language other than English is spoken, according to an analysis of U.S Census data.

A five-year study shows these dual language learners, who are more likely to live in low-income households, benefit the most from a year of transitional kindergarten. When they get to kindergarten, they’re ahead of their peers in math and literacy skills.

“Sometimes, we hear, ‘Oh, if they want to learn English, we need to get them in English classrooms,’ but actually, the opposite is true,” said Carolyne Crolotte, who promotes dual language learner programs for Early Edge California. “If children have a very strong foundation in their home language, they actually learn English more easily.” 

School districts across the state are promoting the value of bilingualism. In Oakland, parents can attend district-sponsored presentations on how to keep a child’s home language alive so they don’t lose it when they start going to school. In Los Angeles County, billboards and bus stop benches are plastered with the message “two languages, twice the opportunities.”

It’s a dramatic shift in public attitude and policy toward bilingual education.

In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, which limited bilingual education in public schools. Backers of the measure were worried bilingual instruction was delaying dual language learners’ ability to read, write and speak English because they were spending too much time learning in their home language.

Three young students hold hands outside as they walk away from the camera towards a play gym structure during recess
Transitional kindergarten students play outside during recess at the International Community School in Oakland on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Then, in 2016, voters overturned that policy, paving the way for language immersion programs.

But by that time, the damage was done. Proposition 227 dismantled bilingual teacher training programs, Crolotte said, and now school districts struggle to find qualified teachers as the demand for language immersion programs grows.

“It’s been a challenge trying to get teachers back into the classroom and then also to get new bilingual teachers to fill these classrooms,” she said.

The shortage affects all grades, but is particularly acute at the TK level because each classroom needs more teachers.

A young girl reads a bilingual exercise book at a classroom table
A student reads a book in English and Spanish in a bilingual transitional kindergarten class at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Currently, the state sets the average class size for transitional kindergarten at 24, with one adult for every 12 students to ensure they receive enough attention and supervision — two marks of a high-quality early childhood education program. By the 2025–26 school year, the demand for teachers will be greater as the state lowers the average class size to 20, or one adult for every 10 students.

Already, school districts and charter schools surveyed by the California Department of Education said they’re having a hard time finding fully credentialed teachers to teach TK by the 2025–26 school year.

These agencies also had challenges hiring assistant teachers to maintain adult-child ratios, resulting in a 12% vacancy rate for the position at the beginning of the 2022–23 school year. That number slightly improved to 8% by the middle of that year.

“These positions are some of the most difficult to staff because pay is lower, and often those positions are part-day,” said Hanna Melnick, senior policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute, who analyzed the survey results.

A teacher smiles in a classroom as a line of young children line up in front of her
Teacher Cintya Valdivia prepares to take transitional kindergarten students outside for recess at the International Community School in Oakland on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A sample audit of school districts found that at least 20 school districts and 50 charter schools failed to comply with the TK class size requirement and/or adult-to-child ratio in the 2022–23 year when the four-year expansion began. These districts and charter schools faced fines ranging from $1,706 to nearly $7 million, according to a report by EdSource.

The districts blamed the problem on a nationwide teacher shortage and difficulty hiring assistant teachers.

California invested $25 million to address the shortage to prepare teachers to work in dual-language classroom settings. As part of the TK expansion, the state also invested hundreds of millions of dollars to increase the number of early educators in TK and the California State Preschool Program, which serves income-eligible 3- to 4-year-olds.

Critics say the state is missing out on a valuable source of teachers: those who already have experience working with 4-year-olds in private and nonprofit child care settings and may already have met some of the requirements for a teaching credential.

A young girl looks at a bilingual calendar on a classroom wall
A student works on a language exercise in a bilingual transitional kindergarten class at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

They also point out that women of color and immigrant women form the backbone of the early child care workforce, and by easing their way into the TK classrooms, they could better reflect the diversity of the student body and improve their wages.

“When it comes to young children, you come to work with your entire heart and your full emotional self. That requires training and experience, and just having more education [from a credentialing program] isn’t going to create that,” said Krystell Guzman, co-director of La Plazita Preschool, a private preschool chain in Oakland and San Leandro.

She said most 4-year-old students are leaving her program to attend the Spanish immersion TK classes at OUSD, leaving her to scramble to preserve jobs for the immigrant women on her staff.

Advocates for racial equity in public education support a bill by Central Valley Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria that would incentivize educators already in the early learning and care field to train to become TK teachers. Offering stipends, child care, transportation and academic support to those educators — many of whom already have bachelor’s degrees — would give them a boost as they pursue their credential, said Natalie Wheatfall-Lum, director of TK–12 policy at EdTrust-West.

Two young students, photographed from above, work on an exercise at a classroom table
Students work on language exercises in a bilingual transitional kindergarten class at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We know that being in a culturally and linguistically affirming environment and being taught by culturally and linguistically diverse educators is an effective equity strategy — that’s part of what ‘quality’ means,” she said. “So we want families to be able to choose TK without having to compromise on quality — including a space where they feel welcomed and can see themselves represented.”

The California Department of Education is responding to this concern by advising educators that even when they don’t speak their student’s home language, they can learn a few words or provide books that recognize the child’s home language. This recommendation will be included in a new edition of the Preschool/Transitional Kindergarten Learning Foundations, which the department will release this summer.

Meanwhile, school districts like Oakland Unified are partnering with a local college to recruit new teachers and offering financial aid to current staff who want to work in TK classrooms.

Seibert received an emergency permit through the district to co-teach the dual immersion TK classroom at International Community Elementary School while she earned her credential.

Three young children in the foreground work on an exercise as a bilingual alphabet hangs on the wall of a classroom behind them
Students work on language exercises in a bilingual transitional kindergarten class at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The 29-year-old has experience working at a private preschool but said she was drawn to the statewide effort to provide free early education for all children. She said working side-by-side with Valdivia, and getting additional support from a classroom aide, gave her a chance to hone her teaching skills and provide one-on-one support to the students who needed it.

Her goal was to help students get used to the routines of the school day, learn to solve problems and collaborate with their peers — skills that she said would help them succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

“Those are key goals we’re trying to reach. All the letter recognition, rhyming skills and counting are just like the icing on top,” she said.

She knows she’s fortunate.

Next year, the district won’t have enough funding to put two teachers and an aide in one classroom.

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