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California Struggles With Classroom Space For Transitional Kindergarten

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Students' backpacks hang outside the transitional kindergarten classroom at Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica. (Courtesy Ashley Balderrama)

California is in the middle of an ambitious plan to offer transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds by the 2025–26 school year. 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.


hen Thomas Pace, director of facilities at San Bernardino City Unified, thinks about all the construction that needs to happen at the schools in his district, he struggles to get the math to work.

Many of the existing kindergarten classrooms don’t meet state standards, and now, they’re preparing to layer in another grade for young children: transitional kindergarten.

In 2021, California embarked on a $2.7 billion plan to offer TK to all 4-year-olds by the 2025–26 school year in what’s poised to be the largest free pre-K program in the country.

But school districts across the state, like Pace’s, are struggling to build or modify the facilities most appropriate for these new young learners.


Why the rollout is expensive and hard

San Bernardino City Unified is at the tail end of using $250 million in bond money the city raised over a decade ago for school improvements.

“All of the specialized space is highly expensive, and for those school districts that lack the local resources, we struggle to make those improvements on a grand scale,” Pace said. “So we were already struggling to catch up even in the kinder realm. Now, you add in a greater offering for TK, it just puts a larger burden on local school districts.”

Mock-ups showing a planned new building and field hang on a fence in front of a construction site at Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica. (Courtesy Ashley Balderrama)

State requirements for new TK classrooms (and kindergarten classrooms) are different than those of typical classrooms. Four-year-olds can’t just sit at desks all day. They also need space to play, indoors and outdoors. They also need supervision when going to the bathroom, which means having a restroom inside the classroom, or close by.

In San Bernardino, 150 of the 190 early education classrooms don’t meet those standards, Pace said.

An initial analysis of state data by the Learning Policy Institute, yet to be published, found most districts reported having classroom space for early learners, but a third expressed concerns about adequate facilities, including square footage, bathrooms and outdoor play areas.

In 2022, California expanded a grant program to help school districts build or renovate transitional kindergarten classrooms. Through two rounds of funding, the state has given out over $585 million.

However, that program requires school districts to be able to provide matching funds at the local level. And districts have asserted that the way funding is structured makes it harder for lower-resourced districts to get money.

“We have lots of classrooms that need to be modified,” Pace said. “We lack the local funding source to match, and we lack the state funding for it. So if the governor doesn’t continue to fund TK improvements to facilities, we are going to struggle.”

Last month, the governor, in his May revised budget, cut more than half a billion dollars for that program. Lawmakers are weighing putting a statewide bond on the ballot in November.

A spokesperson for the Department of General Services said in its last filing round, $1.04 billion worth of requests were not funded.

Why learning environments matter

Children gather around on a large colorful rug in the center of a TK classroom at Will Rogers Elementary in Santa Monica. The classroom has a wooden toddler play loft, puppets and toys and tiny-sized furniture for 4-year-olds. But it’s only about 900 square feet and doesn’t have a restroom inside.

Space is important for young children because they learn through play, said Susan Samarge-Powell, director of early learning at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Dr. Susan Samarge-Powell, director of Child Development Services at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. (Courtesy Ashley Balderrama)

“So rather than students sitting at a desk all day long, that’s not what our early learning environments are about,” she said. “It’s about moving around, they’re moving all day long. And so, having that space to afford them that ability is a big deal.”

She said restrooms are also a big deal because four-year-olds don’t have quite the same bladder control as older kids.

“When you have little bodies, they have to go to the bathroom often. With the older kids, we can say, we’re going before recess. But with littles, whenever they’re ready, you have to go. So, it’s a challenge,” she said.

Across the other side of the elementary school, construction is underway to build new early learning classrooms that offer students an ideal environment — with their own play yard and bathrooms. District officials hope it’ll be ready by the summer of 2025, but the district won’t be finished with most of its other TK construction until 2026 or 2027, said Carey Upton, the district’s chief operations officer.

“We’re playing catchup, and I think all school districts are,” Upton said. But Upton added his district, which includes Malibu, has the benefit of high-assessed property values and bond measures that tend to pass.

“It works OK for school districts that have funding. It works really poorly for school districts that don’t who don’t have the money to front the costs,” Upton said.

Should the state wait to expand TK?

When state lawmakers announced the expansion of TK in 2021, officials said it would provide “high-quality learning opportunities” for every child.

However, Sara Hinkley, a program manager for the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Cities + Schools, said quality may vary based on ZIP code.

The transitional kindergarten classroom’s pet hamster at Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica. (Courtesy Ashley Balderrama)

“If you see that as being very uneven, then the idea of TK being a way to make up the difference between kids who have access to nice, expensive preschool experiences and kids whose families can’t afford to send them to those kinds of experiences — we’ve kind of missed the entire goal of the expanded program, and that would be a shame,” Hinkley said.

“I think what we’ll also end up seeing is that local districts that can raise money locally, that can issue voter-approved general obligation bonds to retrofit these facilities, will have better educational environments for their very young kids,” she added.

LAist reached out to Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, who authored the expansion of transitional kindergarten. His office said he was unable to comment.

Dale Farran, professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University, said the state should wait to implement TK until schools have the appropriate spaces for it.

“[Kids] need to be up, they need to be exploring, they need to be interacting with each other and with the teacher, and they need to have an environment that facilitates all of that happening,” she said.

When bathrooms aren’t in the classroom, for instance, or their lunch is in the cafeteria with older students, it leads to more “transition” time, she explained, with kids having to line up to go to the bathroom or walk down the hall. Not only does that lead to less learning time, but it also leads to teachers having to exert more behavioral control on kids, she said.

“There’s a lot of just waiting. And what happens with 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds, is they get fidgety during all that wait time, right? And they may even start talking to a friend. And that leads teachers then to start what we call ‘behavior disapproval,’ Like, ‘Put a bubble in your mouth,’ or ‘I told you no talking in the hall,’” she said. “And so, children are hearing a lot more nos than they are hearing yeses. And that’s also not good for children.”

Farran worked on a 2022 study in Tennessee that found that students who went to Tennessee’s public pre-K program had more behavior problems and lower test scores.

If not done right, she said: “It will solidify the inequity at an earlier age.”

How does the state help besides money?

The California Department of Education said there are ways to make classrooms best suited for children, beyond the actual building. It’s advising local school districts on best practices — on how to arrange child-sized furniture and making classrooms appropriate for 4-year-olds. The department also has a toolkit for helping kids go to the bathroom.

When bathrooms aren’t inside the classroom, teachers work with aides and other support staff to ensure they take kids to the restrooms in teams and developmentally appropriate ways, said Sarah Neville-Morgan, deputy superintendent at CDE.

An official holds mock-ups for future buildings currently under construction at Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica. (Courtesy Ashley Balderrama)

“I think it goes far beyond what the school looks like now,” she said.

A study by the American Institutes for Research found children who attended TK in California had stronger literacy and math skills when entering kindergarten than kids who didn’t attend the program.

Neville-Morgan also pointed to touring Boston preschools, where in one case, children had to go up a floor to use the restroom because they were in an older building. “But their outcomes, their results from the Boston public schools, universal pre-K are phenomenal,” she said.

She said giving 4-year-olds access to transitional kindergarten will better set them up for success later in life.

“We’re investing in [universal TK] … to give more children those chances, those opportunities to later go out and have access to home ownership, to higher ed or for pathways that give them, not just a living wage, but a really good salary occupation,” she said.

What do districts without local funds do?

San Bernardino City Unified received some funding from the state grant program to help build an early learning center at the site of a high school. But that would just be for seven classrooms across a very large district.

Pace said the district didn’t apply for another round because they didn’t have enough local money to put up a match, which the state requires for the grants. There’s an exception for financial hardship, but that adds some limits on how money can be spent.

Instruction books are displayed inside a transitional kindergarten classroom. (Courtesy Ashley Balderrama)

“That’s the inequitable part about the system — if you have the money, you can turn in [the applications],” Pace said.

Fontana Unified School District applied for more than $23 million but hasn’t received any of it and the district is in the process of putting a bond in November. Leslie Barnes, associate superintendent of business services at Fontana Unified, said the district is looking to put TK classrooms in seven schools.

“The fact that they haven’t slowed down the TK rollout, but yet aren’t providing the funding, we need to be available to provide that on our own,” Barnes said.

Alan Reising, business services administrator with Long Beach Unified and chair of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, said districts will be forced to re-prioritize their local dollars.

“It was disappointing because there’s such a demand out there for [the funding],” he said.

“Whether or not we are ready for them, students are coming,” Reising said. “And so, we will do what we have done for decades, which is we will make do with what we have.”

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